What politicians need to know about social public information (introduction)

Sigmund Freud: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?””

Jean Baptiste Colbert: “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”

No Parking

Parking rules - a result of poor dialogue? Click for pic credit

Sigmund Freud found femininity puzzling. Anyone who has ever watched Yes Minister (or indeed, anyone who has ever had one confidential conversation with a politician or civil servant) will know that governments find everyone baffling.

Mori’s Ben Page is widely quoted using the phrase ‘Cognitive Polyphasia’ – the annoying habit voters have of wanting contradictory things. Things like…

  • Scandinavian healthcare and US taxation rates
  • Strong town-centre shops and stiff residential parking rules
  • Local decision-making but no ‘postcode lotteries’

But is this an acceptable explanation? Or is it a reflexive and defensive response to a public who aren’t happy with the couple of clunky monolithic options that they’re offered by inflexible suppliers?

The public want local shops and post offices to survive. They also want the convenience of out-of-town shops. They want thriving friendly local pubs, yet governments – following Colbert’s advice give tax-cuts elsewhere by imposing the drinks duties that make pub-going prohibitive.

These are not insoluble problems. They are tensions that can be resolved by a more creative engagement. We’ve seen how the internet has unlocked a rate of creative innovation that has never been seen before. Products and services have got better, faster and more tailored to the needs of their users in a way that would have been unthinkable even at the turn of the Millennium.

When other parts of society change, the expectations we impose upon politicians and government change with them. If the market has good feedback loops and uses them to tighten up product or service design, the public expect politicians and government to match them.

Commercial services are now genuinely scared of articulate disgruntled customers in a way they would never have imagined a few years ago. Where commercial services adapt, Governments and politicians are sometimes left standing.

This may often seem unfair. Government and politicians don’t have the retail outlets and universal services aren’t consumed in the same way as refrigerators or Mars Bars are. Governments and politicians sometimes genuinely are flummoxed by the contradicting demands:

  1. Nimble adaption to thousands of signals from the public
  2. The need for accountable and orderly decision-making.

Perhaps some of these complicated demands can be met by a more vigorous and unfettered human conversation between the providers of a service and its customers. More importantly, perhaps, there needs to be a more vigorous and unfettered human conversation between those customers citizens. One where they thrash out what it is that they really want – and one where they understand that we all need to describe the problems we see properly before we can expect those problems to be resolved.

Politicians need to find a way to engage with the hive mind of the public. There are ways of doing this that don’t involved being bossed around by pushy pressure groups or being shouted at by a public who think that it is realistic to demand the impossible.

They also need to understand that the things that stop them from engaging often serve to stop them from scrutinising the civil service as effectively as they could do.

The hive mind of the internet is working on this problem. There are lots of small projects that are chipping away at these barriers. None are perfect, but together, many of them are starting to make a difference.

I’ll be writing a series of posts here outlining what the Political Innovation project is intended to achieve: About how politicians can find real opportunities as well as threats among the increasingly active and vocal netizens that are already changing politics in so many ways.

About Paul Evans

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland, Paul is the curator of the Political Innovation project. On twitter as @paul0evans1, blogging mainly at the Local Democracy blog and working mostly for Memeserver Ltd.
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