Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Is the government’s ‘big tent’ too small to hold ‘all the talents’, or is it the wrong sort of tent?

Bringing more faces into the government’s ‘big tent’ from a range of backgrounds, as the coalition has done, is welcome in principle, in spite of some odd celebrity choices. Broadening governance membership can improve any board of management. In government, expanding the talent pool takes place within the constitutional paradigm 'government proposes; parliament disposes’ (i.e. gives ministers’ proposals legal force). This in turn affects the government’s style of leadership. But even with a bigger tent, this particular model of leadership is failing western-style democracy. WikiLeaks has put secrecy under attack. Twitter spreads information in minutes. The online world and social media make marshalling mass campaigns easier. Witness the public outcry that forced the BBC to backtrack on its Eastenders plot. Perhaps the government’s big tent itself needs to change, not just the membership invited inside.

This suggestion connects with the idea that leadership – like wisdom – belongs to the wider system, not just the leaders. Instead of leadership being primarily about content (say, policy pronouncements) it would become identified more with process (how views are formed). Consider a leader like the Education Secretary Michael Gove, a man who shoots content from the hip. Looking out from his small tent, he rapid fires policies, decisions, edicts, cuts. Whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, his proposals are dramatic, catch people unawares, win approval from some and anger from others. His announcements are intended to get a reaction. Some people fire back, and Gove returns fire. Under pressure from all directions, including from his boss, he may be forced to backtrack. Just reflect on his announcing and then abandoning the School Sports Partnership network, changes to the Building Schools for the Future, capping salaries of headteachers paid more than the Prime Minister, and Book Trust funding of free books for children. Such matters are not generally distinguished by left v right political ideals, but instead concern things like efficiencies and budget cuts. For issues like Gove’s, surely there must be a better, less painful, way – for us, and for him.

Gove is not alone: he fills popular expectations of any ministerial leader. Andrew Lansley’s NHS commissioning reforms took the Commons NHS Select Committee by surprise, according to its Conservative chairman, Stephen Dorrell. On this occasion secrecy had initially been maintained, but that didn’t stop talent haemorrhaging from primary care trusts and putting up costs that offset the planned efficiency savings. In any case, the old management mantra favouring secrecy and surprise to contain anxiety and spare the people from premature suffering is increasingly vulnerable to leaks. Arguably, it is not so much individual ministers who need to change: it is the management model that needs to change.

Seeing the ministerial job principally in terms of content-proposal doesn’t work any more. It is narrowly informed, inefficient, gets people’s backs up, and hurts the proposer’s reputation. The standard defence ‘But wait until you see the consultation paper; it’s not as bad as you think’ doesn’t work well either. Making subsequent changes following consultation takes courage and pain to backtrack; reputations have to be protected, faces saved. Consultation carries too much baggage of hierarchical overtones and leaves people feeling sceptical and short-changed.

The problem is that consultation comes from that same tent, done by those inside to those outside. Yet when one then hears subject-experts speak, and read pundits’ blogs, special correspondents’ columns, business editorials, and encounter radio and web-based discussions, you can be forgiven for thinking that there is more expertise and wisdom outside the tent than in it. So why isn’t it (not them) allowed in? For that to happen, the paradigm would need to change, and changing a paradigm takes leadership. It would put the power and the role of leaders to the test. It would challenge Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the role of MPs, the Whips Office, the Civil Service and the Fourth Estate. But it needs to be done, and it is happening anyway.

The key to this is process. If leadership were to be seen less in terms of content and more about process, then the role of the leader would become one of designing and running a process of all the talents who can contribute to a wise and acceptable outcome, one that would not need railroading through against objections. Ministers shun process as not being under their control, indeed not under control at all, so they drive harder on the content. But in an imaginative and expanded process, advocacy would be replaced by enquiry. Talent would include anyone, not just those being consulted. In freely defined public debate, all views could be expressed and voices heard. The role of participants would not be to react to a proposal, but to question the question – helping to clarify the need, frame the issues, identify possible ways forward and explore options. Better informed decision making would follow.

Technology now makes this possible. WikiLeaks has shown that exclusiveness, secrecy and private emails no longer work. Hierarchy, strong leaders and paternalism aren’t as strong a shield against worry as they used to be. Discussion can no longer be contained, nor should it be. Most of it is going to take place out there anyway, one way or another. So instead of resisting and resenting full prior debate, government should enthusiastically promote and embrace this chaotic expansion of voice. Make a virtue of it, and gain credit for it. The prize on offer is huge: wiser, more acceptable outcomes and a more harmonious society.