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Bryan Boyer

A new culture of decision-making?

By November 7th 2012

This is the second contribution in a blog series on innovation in policy.

I believe in the welfare state. I agree that we are beset by crises, but I’m optimistic enough to expect that humanity will weather them relatively unscathed as individuals, families, and communities. The question is whether our institutions will be as lucky.

 I’d like to begin with a riddle. What binds together the following…?

- A pop-up restaurant
- A Private school
- A Riot
- An Email

The consistent aspect that runs through these four items is that they all represent a vote of no confidence in the institutions of contemporary life. They are each tangible manifestations of a simple but clear statement: “the things you, government, have to offer, are not to my liking and I’m capable of doing something about it.”

Despite the best efforts of both government and politics, the monopoly that institutions have enjoyed since the age of the crown continues to decompose.

Riots in the street, as we experienced most viscerally last year from Tahrir to London, occupy the violent and destructive end of a spectrum. It’s easy to discount the London riots as inexcusable, but I prefer to see them with deep empathy as the right idea poorly — very poorly — expressed.

No one knows the exact source of the London riots, of course, but we know that structural factors like sustained high levels of youth unemployment and social alienation were significant contributing factors. We might chastise the young men (and surely some women) who took to the streets with their fists, but we can also read it as a powerful reminder that voting does not always happen at the ballot box.

After the riots came the post-riot clean-ups. Using email and social media — all privately operated alternatives to the post office, mind you — people took to the street with their own brooms and dustpans. They also brought with them invisible picket signs bearing a message in capital letters: WE DON’T WANT TO WAIT FO YOU SLOWPOKES TO GET A MUNICIPAL CLEANING CREW DOWN HERE!

So here we find ourselves on the other end of a spectrum that maps citizen-initiated activities from destructive to constructive. Citizen cleaning crews, pop-up restaurants, urban cycling in cities without cycle proper lanes, and countless other instances of positive urban activism are all examples of citizens who are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with a different way of living together. They’re impatiently living the future while governments are still trying to convince themselves that it’s OK to prototype.

As you can tell, Jesper and Laura’s paper gave me a papercut – it excited me and left me with a pang of discomfort because it outlined the realities of public policy in concept and execution in 2012. In doing so it makes me focus more carefully on what comes next. If I have any criticism it is that they were too soft on the public sector! My intention today is to heighten the sense of urgency in this discussion.

Increasingly the cost of interacting with institutions is so high that citizens prefer to accept the costs of self-organization or the risks of using services from private or third sectors. As our culture changes, the public sector will continue to find itself subject to competition in ways that it’s not used to. We must internalize this to our core.

But let me rephrase this more bluntly.

When a city builds a digital service, their competition is not other city websites. They are competing against Facebook.

When a ministry develops a service their competition are 3rd parties who act as sherpas, providing better service for a minimal fee with far less hassle.

When an agency provides guidelines, their competition is against the top search result in Google.

When I suggest that the public sector will find itself competing, do not mistake what I’m saying as a suggestion of neo-liberalization.

Rather, this new competitive landscape helps us understand democracy as an old technology, one that’s surely not obsolete but showing its wear and tear — as a technology that’s in need of a tune-up. And I use the language of tune-up specifically because it’s practical, implies banging on things, making small tweaks over long periods of time.

After Bruno Latour, I’d like to suggest that one of the things which have changed is the inputs to our democratic technology. We’ve moved from an era of “facts” where science helps us identify immutable truths, to an era where those facts are increasingly scarce, leaving us instead to grapple with ‘concerns’. In a world of facts, truth is found or discovered. In a world of ‘concerns’, truth is composed and re-composed.

For the public sector of yesterday, facts are the petrol that makes engine work. That our decision-making processes are locking up points to a failure in the engine itself: it was built for petrol but it’s running on something else, it’s running on composed matters of concern. With the former we press on the gas and go. With the latter we pedal all the time.

In conversations about the necessity of reforming the public sector I’m struck by the lack of enemies. We may suffer a “failure of agency” as the authors identify – and I happen to agree – but agency often comes in opposition to a clear and present danger.

In this regard, why are we not more scared of the status quo? We have not designed roads to have traffic jams, hospitals to have queues, services to remove personal agency, and tax forms to be confusing. We are realizing the financial, social, and ecological impact of the inherent risks of the status quo on a daily basis but we’ve become accustomed to them, as the cliché goes. The devil you know is assumed to be a safer choice, but I’d like to remind us all that the devil we know IS STILL A DEVIL!

The groups I started with, the ones exercising their votes of ‘no confidence’ have no problems seeing the status quo for the devil it is. My question today is what the public sector can gain by seeing them as a future. Not as abstract instruments and changes on a theoretical level, but as a new culture of innovation which is not owned by design, by social innovation, by government 2.0. Rather the combined mass of innovative activity across all of these sectors comes with its own unique set of rituals, roles, trinkets, and spaces. It has different ideas about the specific contents of the social contract, different thoughts about how trust is constructed and expended, different ideas about what’s risky and how to mitigate those risks.

Are we ready to accept that a new culture is brewing without such a polite name as “social innovation”?

Read Laura Bunt´s blog on allowing for uncertainty and complexity in government, which is the first contribution in the blog series on innovation in policy.

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