In 2016 I started writing a book, “Choose Your Own Adventure“, which I wanted to be a call to action for individuals to consider their role in the broader system and how they individually can make choices to make things better. As I progressed the writing of that book I realised the futility of changing individual behaviours and perspectives without an eye to the systems and structures within which we live. It is relatively easy to focus on oneself, but “no man is an island” and quite simply, I don’t want to facilitate people turning themselves into more beautiful cogs in a dysfunctional machine so I’m pivoting the focus of the book (and reusing the relevant material) and am now planning to finish the book by mid 2018.
I have recently realised four paradoxes which have instilled in me a sense of urgency to reimagine the world as we know it. I believe we are at a fork in the road where we will either reinforce legacy systems based on outdated paradigms with shiny new things, or choose to forge a new path using the new tools and opportunities at our disposal, hopefully one that is genuinely better for everyone. To do the latter, we need to critically assess the systems and structures we built and actively choose what we want to keep, what we should discard, what sort of society we want in the future and what we need to get there.
I think it is too easily forgotten that we invented all this and can therefore reinvent it if we so choose. But to not make a choice is to choose the status quo.
This is not to say I think everything needs to change. Nothing is so simplistic or misleading as a zero sum argument. Rather, the intent of this book is to challenge you to think critically about the systems you work within, whether they enable or disable the things you think are important, and most importantly, to challenge you to imagine what sort of world you want to see. Not just for you, but for your family, community and the broader society. I challenge you all to make 2018 a year of formative creativity in reimagining the world we live in and how we get there.
The paradoxes in brief, are as follows:
- That though power is more distributed than ever, most people are still struggling to survive.
It has been apparent to me for some time that there is a growing substantial shift in power from traditional gatekeepers to ordinary people through the proliferation of rights based philosophies and widespread access to technology and information. But the systemic (and artificial) limitations on most people’s time and resources means most people simply cannot participate fully in improving their own lives let alone in contributing substantially to the community and world in which they live. If we consider the impact of business and organisational models built on scarcity, centricity and secrecy, we quickly see that normal people are locked out of a variety of resources, tools and knowledge with which they could better their lives. Why do we take publicly funded education, research and journalism and lock them behind paywalls and then blame people for not having the skills, knowledge or facts at their disposal? Why do we teach children to be compliant consumers rather than empowered makers? Why do we put the greatest cognitive load on our most vulnerable through social welfare systems that then beget reliance? Why do we not put value on personal confidence in the same way we value business confidence, when personal confidence indicates the capacity for individuals to contribute to their community? Why do we still assume value to equate quantity rather than quality, like the number of hours worked rather than what was done in those hours? If a substantial challenge of the 21st century is having enough time and cognitive load to spare, why don’t we have strategies to free up more time for more people, perhaps by working less hours for more return? Finally, what do we need to do systemically to empower more people to move beyond survival and into being able to thrive.
- Substantial paradigm shifts have happened but are not being integrated into people’s thinking and processes.
The realisation here is that even if people are motivated to understand something fundamentally new to their worldview, it doesn’t necessarily translate into how they behave. It is easier to improve something than change it. Easier to provide symptomatic relief than to cure the disease. Interestingly I often see people confuse iteration for transformation, or symptomatic relief with addressing causal factors, so perhaps there is also a need for critical and systems thinking as part of the general curriculum. This is important because symptomatic relief, whilst sometimes necessary to alleviate suffering, is an effort in chasing one’s tail and can often perpetrate the problem. For instance, where providing foreign aid without mitigating displacement of local farmer’s efforts can create national dependence on further aid. Efforts to address causal factors is necessary to truly address a problem. Even if addressing the causal problem is outside your influence, then you should at least ensure your symptomatic relief efforts are not built to propagate the problem. One of the other problems we face, particularly in government, is that the systems involved are largely products of centuries old thinking. If we consider some of the paradigm shifts of our times, we have moved from scarcity to surplus, centralised to distributed, from closed to openness, analog to digital and normative to formative. And yet, people still assume old paradigms in creating new policies, programs and business models. For example how many times have you heard someone talk about innovative public engagement (tapping into a distributed network of expertise) by consulting through a website (maintaining central decision making control using a centrally controlled tool)? Or “innovation” being measured (and rewarded) through patents or copyright, both scarcity based constructs developed centuries ago? “Open government” is often developed by small insular teams through habitually closed processes without any self awareness of the irony of the approach. And new policy and legislation is developed in analog formats without any substantial input from those tasked with implementation or consideration with how best to consume the operating rules of government in the systems of society. Consider also the number of times we see existing systems assumed to be correct by merit of existing, without any critical analysis. For instance, a compliance model that has no measurable impact. At what point and by what mechanisms can we weigh up the merits of the old and the new when we are continually building upon a precedent based system of decision making? If 3D printing helped provide a surplus economy by which we could help solve hunger and poverty, why wouldn’t that be weighed up against the benefits of traditional scarcity based business models?
- That we are surrounded by new things every day and yet there is a serious lack of vision for the future
One of the first things I try to do in any organisation is understand the vision, the strategy and what success should look like. In this way I can either figure out how to best contribute meaningfully to the overarching goal, and in some cases help grow or develop the vision and strategy to be a little more ambitious. I like to measure progress and understand the baseline from which I’m trying to improve but I also like to know what I’m aiming for. So, what could an optimistic future look like for society? For us? For you? How do you want to use the new means at our disposal to make life better for your community? Do we dare imagine a future where everyone has what they need to thrive, where we could unlock the creative and intellectual potential of our entire society, a 21st century Renaissance, rather than the vast proportion of our collective cognitive capacity going into just getting food on the table and the kids to school. Only once you can imagine where you want to be can we have a constructive discussion where we want to be collectively, and only then can we talk constructively the systems and structures we need to support such futures. Until then, we are all just tweaking the settings of a machine built by our ancestors. I have been surprised to find in government a lot of strategies without vision, a lot of KPIs without measures of success, and in many cases a disconnect between what a person is doing and the vision or goals of the organisation or program they are in. We talk “innovation” a lot, but often in the back of people’s minds they are often imagining a better website or app, which isn’t much of a transformation. We are surrounded by dystopic visions of the distant future, and yet most government vision statements only go so far as articulating something “better” that what we have now, with “strategies” often focused on shopping lists of disconnected tactics 3-5 years into the future. The New Zealand Department of Conservation provides an inspiring contrast with a 50 year vision they work towards, from which they develop their shorter term stretch goals and strategies on a rolling basis and have an ongoing measurable approach.
- That government is an important part of a stable society and yet is being increasingly undermined, both intentionally and unintentionally.
The realisation here has been in first realising how important government (and democracy) is in providing a safe, stable, accountable, predictable and prosperous society whilst simultaneously observing first hand the undermining and degradation of the role of government both intentionally and unintentionally, from the outside and inside. I have chosen to work in the private sector, non-profit community sector, political sector and now public sector, specifically because I wanted to understand the “system” in which I live and how it all fits together. I believe that “government” – both the political and public sectors – has a critical part to play in designing, leading and implementing a better future. The reason I believe this, is because government is one of the few mechanisms that is accountable to the people, in democratic countries at any rate. Perhaps not as much as we like and it has been slow to adapt to modern practices, tools and expectations, but governments are one of the most powerful and influential tools at our disposal and we can better use them as such. However, I posit that an internal, largely unintentional and ongoing degradation of the public sectors is underway in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and other “western democracies”, spurred initially by an ideological shift from ‘serving the public good’ to acting more like a business in the “New Public Management” policy shift of the 1980s. This was useful double speak for replacing public service values with business values and practices which ignores the fact that governments often do what is not naturally delivered by the marketplace and should not be only doing what is profitable. The political appointment of heads of departments has also resulted over time in replacing frank, fearless and evidence based leadership with politically palatable compromises throughout the senior executive layer of the public sector, which also drives necessarily secretive behaviour, else the contradictions be apparent to the ordinary person. I see the results of these internal forms of degradations almost every day. From workshops where people under budget constraints seriously consider outsourcing all government services to the private sector, to long suffering experts in the public sector unable to sway leadership with facts until expensive consultants are brought in to ask their opinion and sell the insights back to the department where it is finally taken seriously (because “industry” said it), through to serious issues where significant failures happen with blame outsourced along with the risk, design and implementation, with the details hidden behind “commercial in confidence” arrangements. The impact on the effectiveness of the public sector is obvious, but the human cost is also substantial, with public servants directly undermined, intimidated, ignored and a growing sense of hopelessness and disillusionment. There is also an intentional degradation of democracy by external (but occasionally internal) agents who benefit from the weakening and limiting of government. This is more overt in some countries than others. A tension between the regulator and those regulated is a perfectly natural thing however, as the public sector grows weaker the corporate interests gain the upper hand. I have seen many people in government take a vendor or lobbyist word as gold without critical analysis of the motivations or implications, largely again due to the word of a public servant being inherently assumed to be less important than that of anyone in the private sector (or indeed anyone in the Minister’s office). This imbalance needs to be addressed if the public sector is to play an effective role. Greater accountability and transparency can help but currently there is a lack of common agreement on the broader role of government in society, both the political and public sectors. So the entire institution and the stability it can provide is under threat of death by a billion papercuts. Efforts to evolve government and democracy have largely been limited to iterations on the status quo: better consultation, better voting, better access to information, better services. But a rethink is required and the internal systemic degradations need to be addressed.
If you think the world is perfectly fine as is, then you are probably quite lucky or privileged. Congratulations. It is easy to not see the cracks in the system when your life is going smoothly, but I invite you to consider the cracks that I have found herein, to test your assumptions daily and to leave your counter examples in the comments below.
For my part, I am optimistic about the future. I believe the proliferation of a human rights based ideology, participatory democracy and access to modern technologies all act to distribute power to the people, so we have the capacity more so than ever to collectively design and create a better future for us all.
Let’s build the machine we need to thrive both individually and collectively, and not just be beautiful cogs in a broken machine.
- Tim O’Reilly talks about “rewriting the rules of business” which I think is relevant here: http://evonomics.com/rewrite-the-rules-of-the-economy-tim-oreilly/ (thanks to Cameron Shorter for the link)
- Cameron Shorter also suggested some work he did on collaboration including how to understand the new measures of success within open and collaborative communities so that decision makers can confidently back sustainable initiatives here: http://cameronshorter.blogspot.com.au/2017/11/open-source-pitch-for-your-boss.html
- I highly recommend people read “Democracy in Chains” (no, it isn’t a blockchain book!) which looks at the rise of a reformist movement (disguised as conservatism) intent on dismantling federal controls in the United States, and has some interesting insights to the very specific definition of liberty which protects the wealthy few at great cost to the majority and democracy is an incursion of property rights.
- The New Public Service: Serving rather than Steering – useful academic paper.