Governance as learning: the challenge of democracy

About the author
Tom Bentley is director of Demos, a London-based think tank focused on democracy. He works on a range of issues including education and innovation.
Read Anthony Barnett’s introduction to the Mulgan /Bentley exchange, charting the shift in governance under New Labour’s Third Way from ‘we know best’ to ‘we learn best’

An Australian policy-maker who tracks policy-making on several continents recently told me that the Strategy Unit in the UK Cabinet Office produces ‘the best government thinking in the world’. Geoff Mulgan’s essay does its best to justify this encomium with an overview that fuses an independently-crafted intellectual panorama with an imaginative and balanced approach to the rigours of policy formation inside government.

Mulgan’s brief was to address the changing nature of policy-learning and international comparison at the centre. But his argument – that governments which learn and adapt best serve their citizens most effectively – is limited in two respects. For governance to work well in the 21st century, policy has to help change whole, complex, social and organisational systems. To do this, the relationship between governments and people needs to change in two other closely related ways.

Governments and people: change and constraint

The first challenge is implementation, where absorbing and acting on the best of what can be learned from elsewhere requires a different chain running from policy decision to administrative outcome and back again. In Britain, the model of governance inherited from the 19th century embodies a formal distinction between ‘policy’, a set of objectives set by elected ministers, and its translation into practice by a neutral, efficient, permanent civil service. This assumes that political and administrative decision-making are structurally separated. ‘Governance as learning’ collapses this distinction, which in reality is already a hazy one.

The second, more important, challenge is democracy. The institutional design of parliamentary democracies also assumes that policy goals and methods are legitimated through a separation of powers and processes. The actions of governments are accountable to elected representatives in parliaments. Parliaments and governments are formed through party-based electoral competition, who organise their proposed policies into manifestos. Elected governments undertake ‘consultation’ processes in order to test and refine their proposals with the public and civil society.

But ‘governance as learning’ implies a more direct and interactive relationship between state and citizen, diffused across a much wider and continual range of activities. To be capable of responding and adapting across our complex, mass-scale societies, governments need more than strategic brilliance and sophisticated networking. They must also rely on new methods of deliberation and legitimation, both to draw on the ideas and innovations generated by citizens, and to make new priorities, tools and responsibilities acceptable.

In both these areas, innovation and adaptation in governance are lagging behind the development of high-level strategic policy analysis which draws rapidly from experience elsewhere. Without them, the ‘emerging global commons’ which Mulgan describes risks becoming the preserve of an articulate and professional elite, which includes the most able policy-makers and the best think-tanks, but is constrained by the realities of institutional power and cut off from some of the most significant innovative potential elsewhere.

While in many ways there have never been better conditions or incentives for knowledge exchange and policy transfer, several factors remain in today’s policy environment which act as serious and damaging constraints to the free flow of learning.

Governance as conceptual system

In the 20th century, the organisation of the state reflected the struggle between competing ideologies. The triumph of liberal capitalism was also a victory for the free and creative flow of ideas – driven as it is by openness, competition and exchange. The competing theories of state and market were theories of knowledge as well as of power. The logic of Friedrich von Hayek, which has largely won out in today’s world, is that when ideas are traded and information distributed across systems of exchange, choice and efficiency are increased.

As Anthony Barnett points out in his introduction to the debate, Mulgan’s synthesis reflects the idea that good government is a good in itself; it does not have to justify itself purely by copying market mechanisms in its attempt to coordinate large scale activity. But the assumptions underpinning the shape of the modern state still need to be questioned, because they influence the possibilities that can be considered as policy options.

These assumptions are bound up in the ideal of neutral, dispassionate analysis of policy choices and a ‘cost-benefit’ approach to their selection. This model is central to the design of European bureaucracies and parliamentary systems, and its influence spread across the world through immigration and empire in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The legacy of this spread is a machinery of government which, at its administrative core, is remarkably similar from Norway to Australia, Japan to Canada, Greece to South Africa.

The core of the approach is a form of reductionism: the idea that any complex policy problem can be broken apart into manageable chunks and dealt with through functional departments deploying generalised administrative skills. As a result, policy-making processes are supposed to select the methods most appropriate to their specific objectives and then implement them according to mechanistic principles, preserving the principle of ‘vertical accountability’ through which every penny or cent of public expenditure can be traced from its eventual destination; whether unemployment benefit, school voucher or cruise missile, each can be linked back up a chain of command to the policy choice which validated it.

This approach is designed to encourage efficiency (because it focused public administration on achieving clear-cut, manageable objectives) and transparency (because it can always be established whose responsibility it is to deliver a particular policy outcome). But as many people realise, the reality is far messier.

The people and societies which governments are trying to act on are more interconnected and less likely to divide their problems and needs up into neat functional units. Poor health may impact on housing need and labour market participation, as well as the need for medical treatment. Changes to budgeting rules for the sake of fiscal stability produce direct consequences for domestic saving, unemployment levels, and patterns of population mobility. Low inflation and interest rates change consumption behaviour and the relative value of housing.

Over the last generation especially, societies have become more interconnected, as globalisation and communications have made the movement of ideas, people, money and culture faster and cheaper. As a result, governments have to learn faster. And as Mulgan says, in a less ideological age, the tendency for governments (or at least their strategic centres) to operate like magpies, picking up ideas from all over and implementing them one by one, becomes more pronounced.

This is one way to deal with a more diverse, possibly more complex environment, when the demands of some citizens and interest groups are more vociferous and the pressure of events and always-on media is relentless. In other words, the factors which helped bring about the victory of the liberal state have also increased the pressure on it. Better and faster learning is one response.

As an organisational innovation, the Strategy Unit itself is a reaction to the deficiency of this approach. It addresses complex, interconnected and long term policy challenges through a cross-functional, team-based approach to policy diagnosis, futures thinking and strategy. In the process it is helping to pioneer a different mode of policy-making which is increasingly echoed and imitated in other parts of the world.

But if the focus is too strongly on strategic learning from the centre, good government in the 21st century will not achieve its full potential. This is because responsiveness to the full range of citizen need is not possible only by reprogramming the machinery of government at policy level.

Implementation: from efficiency to responsiveness

Two examples illustrate this basic point.

The first is the management of people flow. Refugees and asylum-seekers present a logistical nightmare to western governments. Not only do governance systems have to meet, identify, and validate the identity of individuals arriving unpredictably at national borders, but they then have to be provided with a minimum of social support, have their cases and appeals processed, be housed and have their movement, work and access to social security regulated.

In this environment, national systems are caught between the growing demand for immigration to be controlled and managed, the growing perception of security risk from people flow, and the need to respect migrants’ human rights and dignity.

There are many potential policy options currently in play, not least those presented by Demos and openDemocracy in our joint People Flow project. But no lasting policy solution will work that does not spread the capacity to learn and adapt across implementation structures as well as policy processes. Immigration officers and police must learn how to identify and assess risk in new ways, and communicate with other agencies more effectively. Local authorities need to find ways of allocating housing and language support more effectively. Employment agencies need to match new skills and income needs with local vacancies.

The point is that overarching principles and policy categories for all these things may well need to be adjusted in the light of success elsewhere, but the capacity of the implementation system to learn for itself and from its own experience is just as vital to good governance. Such learning capacity is not possible if all the different elements of an implementation plan are simply understood as following rules or instructions which are determined higher up the policy chain.

The second example is that of child welfare. Across many different countries, concern about child abuse and neglect has risen with the influence of high-profile media abduction cases and declining social trust. Social exclusion has concentrated the risks of neglect, underdevelopment, some kinds of abuse and even malnutrition among very specific groups of children.

In theory, the growth of a target-based culture of accountability should have made governance regimes less tolerant of negative outcomes for children. But as many systems have found, designing structures and rules which compel social workers or others to follow formal routines and procedures with respect to children at risk does not automatically improve outcomes or prevent system failure.

In fact, outcomes for children in specific local areas are strongly influenced by the degree of trust, communication and informal coordination between different agencies and communities themselves. The likelihood of improving family circumstances or negotiating better solutions for children is increased by increasing the ability of schools, families, social services, health providers and so on to adapt in response to specific circumstances, not necessarily to work more efficiently or predictably according to a set of instructions.

The conclusion is clear: ‘governance as learning’ must be distributed very widely across those with responsibility for implementation if it is going to sustain better outcomes for all.

Learning how to innovate

To be fair, several of the policy ideas that Geoff Mulgan cites as having spread through learning are for systems which improve implementation, such as restorative justice. But the change is usually not just greater efficiency in processing a standard function, but also a shift in people’s expectations of how to respond to a problem like youth offending.

Across the core areas of government policy, from health and education to regulation and tax administration, good government has to find ways of providing goods and services which are more differentiated to people’s own personal circumstances. Responsiveness to this diversity has to be built into the administration of government services, as well to the goals of policy.

This requires the development of implementation strategies which can be continuously adjusted and adapted in the light of consistent feedback. The examples I have used come from social policy, but the challenges apply equally to other fields, such as improving productivity in small firms, or regulating complex patterns of financial service provision.

Making more of our newfound ability to compare, contrast and borrow from others therefore depends on getting organisations at ground level to absorb and adapt ideas. This is an area where the British government – like most others – is still struggling. It is true that professions and other interest groups are often resistant to innovation and threats to their specialist knowledge and status. But governments do not have enough of the answers, or sufficient control to direct their implementation everywhere, for practitioners to be overridden or pushed aside in every case.

Policy-makers must learn how to foster innovation from within, as well as competition and inspiration from without, and to create a climate in which public service practitioners can be engaged in the search for new ideas as anybody else. At Demos we have found that more and more of our work involves partnership with practitioner and delivery organisations, which tests out new approaches by applying them in practice and developing strategies for learning from the results, building networks for the exchange of ideas and experience which can enhance this adaptive capacity. What is interesting is that a growing range of collaboration with policy-makers in other countries on ‘high-level’ issues is informed and enriched by a base of direct, localised organisational learning experience.

Democracy: from occasional choice to continuous input

The implication of all this is that governments must find out what works through higher levels of experimentation, including simple trial and error. And this is only likely to be politically possible when the wider culture of debate is both more understanding and more forgiving of specific failures. For this reason alone, a much broader and creative engagement of citizens is essential in what is happening around them and how it can be organised.

The critical shift, which will never be achieved only through smarter policy-making, is to find ways of involving citizens not just in understanding the problems and solutions, but also in contributing to them through their everyday choices and behaviours. A system of governance in which ideas travel faster through lateral networks of exchange has to be a system in which public institutions harness the ‘creative power’ of citizens to generate detailed solutions. This is where network-based methods for encouraging debate and deliberation intertwine with more distributed organisational structures for service delivery.

There are some well-known examples of how participatory processes can be used to generate better, and more legitimate policy decisions, such as the budget-setting process used in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, which combines neighbourhood forums and city-wide plenary debates with detailed technical analysis and costing procedures to combine the input of residents on what local priorities should be with a sophisticated approach to resource allocation and fiscal discipline.

Elsewhere, experimentation with online consultation and deliberative juries has also produced promising results in changing both the outcomes and the public perception of difficult policy questions such as hospital closures or housing management.

But the real, broader challenge is to define a form of ‘distributed democracy’ in which people’s own direct participation in producing public goods like health, education and community safety is expressed through the way that they deal with local institutions and help create local public value, as well as the attention and voice that they give to bigger and more abstract issues.

In all these cases, the very meaning of democracy starts to shift: from choosing between simplified alternative programmes of policy ‘commitments’ to a more continuous exchange of ideas and experience, and a public weighing of the costs and risks of alternative options.

But this change has to be accompanied by the growth of new capabilities among governance institutions. These need to communicate through peer-to-peer networks and with diverse groups of citizens, to incorporate detailed feedback information into everyday management, and pass lessons and ideas back up the chains of command to inform high-level policy development.

The growth of a network-based culture of information and transparency makes this kind of interaction between people and institutions possible. It ought to make a wider range of choices realistic, by eroding the invisible limitations imposed on us by our existing models of governance.

But as Geoff Mulgan notes, genuine learning and exchange of ideas remains very much a face-to-face process, helped by the availability of virtual connections and the ability to collect and analyse more information, but made possible only by the existence of social cultures and concrete organisational practices. Governance as learning will be a reality not just when every strategic centre is networked, but when the networks extend from the blue skies of long-term strategy to the coalface of everyday experience.