Since I very enthusiastically engaged myself in the work at MindLab it’s been a part of my motivational narrative that MindLab as an ideological project stands out. Especially in terms of its attempt to grasp the experience of the citizen and using this research to create grounds for new policy solutions to make bureaucratic practices more in tune with real lives as they are actually lived. An even more significant ideological project, however, is how to think about and use the knowledge which is created.
More often than not, project leaders at MindLab are struggling to justify methodological choices and ways of doing research. MindLab is researching the public sector qualitatively. The problem is not the creation of new knowledge itself, but how to put it into legitimate use.
Drawing on John Dewey’s ‘The Public and its Problem’, Bruno Latour argues for a more realistic definition of “what it is to know something scientifically” (Latour 2007:2). The problem, says Latour, is that the cognitive abilities with which civil servants act are linked to science rather than research. This is far from the same thing. Science in this sense is linked to objectivity, an already finished ‘map’ from which political plans can be drawn out and followed. The notion of research takes the learning process seriously and links action and knowledge in a more fruitful way:
“Whatever has been planned, there are always unwanted consequences for a reason that has nothing to do with the quality of the research or with the precision of the plan, but with the very nature of action. It has never the case that you first know and then act. You first act tentatively and then begin to know a bit more before attempting again” (Latour 2007:4)
The state is therefore never allowed ‘to act like a state’, Latour writes. This means that civil servants are forced to put their knowledge into calculated forms that, in the name of governance, has to be ‘picture perfect’. But precisely because the public sector is changing constantly and every policy and political decision have unintended outcomes, they are bound not to stay that way. Observations of consequences of for example welfare services are subject to error and illusion, since the public welfare sector constantly is posing new contextual settings in the interaction between the state and the citizens.
The legitimate use of ‘research’ rather than ‘science’ in policy making would be an ideological shift that could create a much more fruitful space for innovation in the public sector. Since ‘the state always has to be rediscovered’ (Dewey 1927:23), the emphasis should be put on exploring and learning about the realities of the citizens and accepting that unintended outcomes comes with the premise of action itself. Not calculating what we already know. If you want to redraw the map, you cannot know the right thing to do in advance. Instead, you can accept that ‘the map’ needs constant redrawing since it will never fully fit the real landscape. This important ideological and scientific distinction is what MindLab in my view is contributing to illuminate.
Bruno Latour (2007): ‘How to think like a State’
John Dewey (1927): ‘The Public and its Problem’
Quote in headline: Latour 2007:5