Bureaucrats to the Rescue

Bernardo Zacka – Boston Review

Politicians make decisions, legitimised by their democratic mandate. Bureaucrats implement those decisions, based on the objective and standardised application of rules.

So at least goes the standard caricature. Reality is, of course, more complicated than that. That simplistic model breaks down for at last two kinds of reasons. First, the real world is just too big and varied to make it possible – or sensible – to specify everything in minute detail. Systems which attempt to do that tend to break. Secondly, bureaucrats and the consumers of public services are human beings (as indeed are politicians), and their interactions will inevitably be influenced by emotional as well rational responses. Bureaucrats always have faces, even if those faces are not always visible.

This article is a thoughtful exploration of the place of bureaucracy and bureaucrats in wider political systems, including the psychological toil which can be exacted on those trying to manage those intrinsic tensions between rules, complex reality, and humanity.

 

Designing for democracy

Catherine Howe – Curious?

By happy – one might almost say curious – coincidence, this is another mapping of policy interventions, but this time ranked by democratic power. The result may feel a little painful to user researchers, but is a powerful complement to the Policy Lab perspectives.

But this post is about much more than a neat diagram. The core argument is that policy making is intrinsically political, and that being political should mean being democratic, not – or at least not just – because democracy is intrinsically good, but because there is already clear evidence that bad things happen when design, and particularly digital design, happens in a democratic vacuum. ‘Working in the open’ is one of the mantras of GDS. This post takes that thought to a level I suspect few of its proponents have ever imagined.

Government doesn’t have needs

A short and powerful polemic on why government doesn’t have needs (and thus why governments are different from users, which do). It’s a powerful argument, but a narrower one than the author seems to recognise. To the extent that government is a provider of services, there is much to be said for a strong focus on meeting user needs, and there is certainly good reason to think that behaving as if that were true has some powerful positive benefits, not least in that using the language of needs gives the best possible chance of not getting prematurely tied up with solutions. There’s a risk, though, that the consumers of a service are seen as the only relevant people, and their needs the only relevant needs. That’s sometimes true (or as nearly true that we don’t need to worry about it), but often there are social and collective interests in how a service operates as well as the individual one – which is one reason they are government services in the first place.

The post is also dismissive of describing the users of government services as ‘customers’. That’s a view which is more rigid than sensible – but that’s a debate for another day.

Charles Reynolds-Talbot – Medium

Creating Policy Innovation in the context of Government Bureaucracies? Could ‘Parallel Learning Structures’ be an answer?

It’s a rare treat for a site with an audience disproportionately made up of practising bureaucrats to point to a post which begins by describing bureaucracy as one of humanity’s best inventions.  But there is, not surprisingly, a sting in the tail: the very qualities which are the strength of bureaucracy are the downfall of creativity and innovation. The answer suggested here is ‘Parallel Learning Structures’.  From the description in the post, the recent flurry of policy labs, innovation spaces and agility in governments has strong if unwitting resonance, with that approach – but the question, as ever, is how to move these approaches from the margin to the core. 

Colin Talbot – Cambridge Policy Lab

American Hot Dogs

Government is mostly about making choices, most of the time. Or more precisely, that’s what politics is. The reason politics is hard is because those choices are often hard in their own right, and harder still when put in the context of all the other choices which need to be made.

This post is a cartoon which starts with the question – apparently the final hurdle in White House job interviews – about your readiness to microwave a puppy. It ends with the assertion that the White House – and, by extension, politics generally – is a place where impossible choices are made everyday. The two are more connected than they might first appear.

Sassquach