There’s a poem, The Solution, by Bertolt Brecht that goes something like this:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
It’s a nice rendition of the old dilemma – do people get the governments they deserve or do governments get the people they have to put up with?
In a funny way, Beth Noveck’s new book – Smart Citizens, Smarter State: the technologies of expertise and the future of governing – is an attempt to break the deadlock. It argues persuasively we’re now in possession of new “technologies of expertise” that can dramatically alter the basis on which people and governments join forces more productively for knowledge, creativity and results. These are technologies which combine new common and open platforms, simple and affordable tools of collaboration, curation and communication and the increasingly powerful and pervasive infrastructure of connection and search on which they rely and into which they feed.
The book is a heartfelt and well-grounded plea for a more open and experimental search for new institutional practices and cultures, whose constant evolution and adaptation is one hallmark of resilient, adaptive societies, that would be better suited to solve a tangle of new complex challenges. We have to find new ways to find and use knowledge, expertise, insight and experience that are as open, connected and complex as the problems we’re trying to solve.
Beth’s book, and the work it reflects from The GovLab in New York, is some the best thinking I’ve seen about not just new practices for more effective governance and better quality public work but about the requisite shift of culture and mindset without which many of these promising “lines of inquiry” for impact and results will go begging.
The book’s promise and potential is captured at the end, when Beth argues strenuously for a sea change in the way we “do” government and public problem solving.
“There is no more important public issue today than how to develop our governing organisations to make them smarter and better able to tackle the myriad and complex challenges we face…..Over the next 50 years, we will face challenges no previous generation of humanity have ever had to deal with . To overcome, we have to run our communities and our institutions differently. The crisis of human capital…is our other climate crisis – making real use of what people know. The very real opportunity that is upon us is to innovate in how we get the full gamut of this expertise – formal scientific knowledge and credentials, but also skills and expertise – into policymaking.”
And she’s right.
It’s a larger framing of the problem all large organisations, institutions and systems face, characterised in suitably pithy form by former CEO of Hewlett Packard Lew Platt who once opined “if only Hewlett Packard knew what Hewlett Packard knows, we would be three times more productive” Beth’s comprehensive, forensic and compelling navigation of the emerging tools and platforms for connected and inclusive problem solving is driven by the same question, but this time at the scale of whole countries or cities or regions.
The central problem is a lack of faith, even amongst the most “ardent democrats”, that “citizens possess the knowledge and the competence needed for participation in governing.” The truth is that, beyond old fashioned and often superficial, even cynical exercises in consultation (“the broken, staccato rhythm of citizen engagement”) and the intermittent use of formal expertise in reviews, task forces or inquiries, governments betray through their actions little confidence that citizens know anything that could be useful more broadly to the policy and problem solving process. Worse, these practices imply that “people are either unwilling or unable to contribute to their own governance except through partisan politics and the pursuit of individual interests.” The book is not pie-eyed about this, but argues back forcefully and pragmatically that, even if that baleful view of their citizens was ever helpful or accurate, governments cannot afford to hold on to it.
The book explores the context for, and response to, this “pandemic of distrust” the solution to which is a new “conversational infrastructure that connects more diverse people and what they know to our public institutions.”
There are plenty of examples in the book of projects that are already either building, using or evolving this conversational infrastructure, many of which deploy creative combinations of ‘analog’ and digital tools for finding, convening and curating much wider networks of diverse expertise and insight. As the book notes in telling the story of Ushahidi’s serendipitous success, “a compelling idea can be persuasive, hut the people most able to help are often unknown to those who have a problem to solve and are therefore hard to find.”
The other problem at the heart of the book’s critique, and which fires its energetic advocacy for “better”, is the way in which we have conflated the concept of “professional” with “credentials rather than skills or experience.” In the process, important nuances of power and authority are perpetuated around the concept of expertise, with the result that too often it’s hard to take advantage of the wide and varied actual expertise from those outside governments.
To be clear, Beth’s argument reinforces “the problem is not professionalism per se but one of exclusionary and exclusive practices that limit participation and collaboration with those outside government, including other elites and credentialed professionals as well as those with practical know how.
The book is critical of the open government movement, much of whose energy and goodwill is being dissipated, she argues, by recycled policy initiatives, lip service to the notion of engagement and “open-ended promises to make changes without any commitment to measure their impact.” As Beth concludes, provocatively, those who see the power of social media and other technologies to move the open government needle have yet to learn “how to convert that energy from challenging power to changing it.”
Two other brief observations which point to the profound and provocative thesis which this book methodically unfolds:
From the germ of the Enlightenment rationality and scientific positivism springs a professional desire to define for the social world the same kind of order scientists seek in their understanding of the natural world. A belief in the ability of contemporary policy making institutions to plan and diet society remans the core rationale of today’s professionalized institutions.
As Beth points out, drawing on the work of political scientist James C Scott in his book Seeing Like a State (another seminal exposition of the shortcomings of some of the inherited “high modernist” practices of governing with which we are burdened), an “imperial” scientific view cannot succeed “not because expertise is too weak or too strong, gut because it oversimplified reality in an effort to control it.”
And the hope about the solvent power of the new technologies of expertise as one part of the mix of culture, practice and technology change which will retune our instincts and institutions of public work lies in a very specific feature:
“By divorcing the concept of expertise from elite social institutions and creating tools to enable neutral identification of talent and ability – whether or those inside or outside of government, with credentials or craft knowledge – technology is democratizing expertise for the subject being described and for the institutions trying to search for it.”
Back to Brecht briefly.
The real significance of Beth Noveck’s work more generally I think, and this book in particular, is the alternative she offers to the increasing drift apart of governed and governments. Her insights and examples suggest that, rather than seeking to “dissolve the people and elect another”, tempting though that might be for some politicians and bureaucrats, we might be better employed thinking about doing exactly the opposite. How can we systematically learn to better harness the technologies of expertise to make the changes in culture and practice at the heart of our public work to make “the people” more purposefully useful and effective than ever? Don’t divorce them. Offer them a new gig. And start by inviting them more openly and systematically into the process.
Perhaps we’d be better investing more time in discovering ways to engage the full range of our individual and collective expertise and knowledge, formal and experiential, rational and intuitive, to apply to the opportunities and risks we confront than in debilitating debates about the death of democracy or the serial incapabilities of some of our current ways of working on our big public challenges.
The prescription in this book is clear, pragmatic and realistic; its examples of better practice suggest we’re not starting from scratch (the future is always here, right, waiting to be more evenly distributed?) and its invitation to do something practical about the future of governing is inescapable.
It’s also tough and demanding in some of its implications for current modes and models of power, authority and control. That should give us some pause in our enthusiasm for its rapid and robust adoption by at least some parts of a system whose current interests and position are most threatened. But it’s an invitation we shouldn’t resist.