It turns out that good government, done well and an effective, skilled and well-resourced public sector matter. They matter all the time, but they matter especially in times of crisis and danger. The trouble is, if you don’t think they matter all the time and mistreat them accordingly in the way you talk about them and the way you spend money on them, you will find them dangerously lacking the depth of expertise, resources and institutional momentum and resilience you most need when the chips are down.
We are in the middle of a prolonged and unexpected, but long overdue experiment in the purpose and value of “public”, of what it means to have a robust and accountable capability to act wisely and decisively on issues that impact the lives we lead in common.
The public realm – the physical, digital, intellectual and moral places and spaces in which we play out an understanding of the things we share and value because they impact the quality of everyone’s life – is an asset that decays with carelessness and thrives with careful and collaborative attention. We need it and it needs us. I think we’ve largely forgotten that and what practical implications flow as a consequence.
You can’t denigrate expertise, even or perhaps especially when it turns out not always to be perfect or infallible, and then call on it with a kind of kind of manic, desperate respect without any apology of self-criticism when you suddenly work out it’s all that stands between you and chaos or possibly losing government.
We’re in the middle of another prolonged and perhaps similarly unexpected experiment in the nature and purpose of expertise. When the obviously very clever but foolish Michael Gove reached for the cheap politics of “I think we’ve all had enough of experts now”” – a line he claims was the result of a bit of interviewing gamesmanship to ignore his real intent, which was to warn against trusting too much in settled or consensus expertise – he triggered for me at least a bigger set of questions.
What counts as expertise? Who has it and how can we test its validity and credibility (as opposed to its credentials)? Who gets to wield their expertise in which set of conditions? Is there good and bad expertise? If experts agree, is that a bad thing and does it mean they are complacent and therefore wrong? How does expertise get to be formed, tested and evolved?
And what about the distinction between formal and credentialled expertise and informal, experiential expertise, the sort of that emerges from not from the University of Oxford or Cambridge but from the university of life or the school of hard knocks?
Are ordinary people expert in their own lives? What does that mean if it’s true about the role and respect we accord ordinary people when it comes to taking decisions that impact them and in which so often their views, experience and expertise seems barely an afterthought? And if experts, including ordinary people sometimes get it wrong does that mean we can and perhaps should ignore then, perhaps even ridicule them?
Solving problems and responding to risks and opportunities that affect our shared lives turns out to be a task that can’t be left exclusively to government and the public sector.
The work we need to do to solve these problems and grab these opportunities, that impact us all equally and which determine, over and above our own individual efforts and capabilities, the quality of the life we might expect to lead – what we could call “public work” – is the work of different, but always highly mixed, unusual and collaborative contributions from governments, the public sector, businesses large, small and in between, the organized (community groups and NGOs) and ordinary people, families and unstructured forms of collaboration and mutual self-help, universities, think tanks, entrepreneurs and start-up inventors and innovators.
This is the work of social imagination, at which we appear to be less competent and confidence than we need to be.
In a recent piece for Demos Helsinki Mulgan describes an ‘’imaginary crisis’’, which he argues is the result of ‘’a deficit of social imagination [in which] many people find it hard to picture a plausible and desirable society a generation or two in the future.’’
Geoff describes the antidote as social imagination:
“..the conscious, deliberate, iterative, experimental design of a better world, fed by expansive imagination, informed by systemic analysis and operationalised through experiment.” (p23).
Social imagination is part of the mandate for public work, whose moral and practical dimensions the pandemic has brought into sharp relief.