How far away is the new world?

26 April 2008

Martin Stewart Weeks has a question

For the most part, government is not being done in recognizably different ways and certainly not ways that, in any reasonable interpretation of the word, would count as ‘transformation’ . Underlying structures and systems remain largely unchanged. It’s even harder to discern much real shift in underlying culture and behaviour. The compelling and provocative insights of the kind of world that Charles Leadbeater sketches in his new book We Think (as just one example of many analysts and writers) – open, collaborative, subject to new forms of collective intelligence, breaking down the silos etc – are notable too often for their absence in the settled and intractable world of public policy and public management. 

Am I being unfair?

I think the short answer is ‘yes’.  It is unfair, because there is an unspoken switch of focus in the comparison.  No, there isn’t yet much shift in underlying culture and behaviour in public policy and management.  But that is surely because the public sector largely reflects the wider society of which it is part, not because it fails to.  Most organisations do not live in a web 2.0 world.  People reading blogs are a small minority, people writing them are a small minority of that minority, and the conversations we have among ourselves are not representative of how the rest of the world thinks about and does things.  For the most part, business is not being done in recognisably different ways – or at least, it is instructive to think about where it is and isn’t. 

Take the level of resistance and incomprehension shown by the film and music industries.  The signals for change have been clearer, the potential rewards for change much greater, alternative models far more obvious and key parts of the market much more ready to change than is true for most public service providers.  Napster showed the big labels what the future looked like in 1999:  they chose to look resolutely in the other direction.  Mark Cuban dared to challenge the idea that DVDs should come out months after cinema releases and later suggested that the best thing to do with film soundtracks was to give them away – and is treated as an idiot by the rest of the industry. 

Those are interesting examples for a couple of reasons.  The first is that both industries are inherently digital, so might be thought to be more likely than others to recognise and respond to the challenge of the changing environment.  The second is that in both cases they have embraced changes in the means and methods of production while resisting changes to the means of distribution:  the dynamics of the back end and the front end have been very different. 

Government is, of course, about more than production and distribution.  It is about engagement and participation too.  Most of us are free riders there, just as we are with wikipedia and linux.  Amazon and Netflix will use their customers’ actions and opinions to improve the recommendations they make – and in a delightfully recursive way, Netflix is using the wisdom of the crowd to improve the way it uses the wisdom of the crowd – but they don’t want us to talk back.  I am struggling to think of a mainstream commercial service where the principles of marketing as conversation are really at the heart of the approach. 

That leaves social media.  It’s pretty self-evident that government is not much like Facebook.  But in many ways it would be odd if it were:  government is not about democracy, it is the thing to which we apply democracy.  Facebook is more a substitute for an evening at the pub than it is likely to be for an evening at Conway Hall.  It is a good thing that No10 is playing with twitter, but right now that’s on the margins of the margin, and it is probably more important that Patient Opinion is doing what it does – which of course is not a government service at all.

Governments are as vulnerable to the innovator’s dilemma as anyone, so it is not altogether surprising that this should be so.  And it is made more difficult again by the fact that it is rarely if ever straightforward to innovate in government services without the consent and participation of government – which is essentially the point Tom Steinberg is reported as making in Martin’s follow up post – so reducing the power of the disruptive newcomers to replace conservative incumbents by innovating round them.

So is government slow to change and to embrace the new opportunities created by its changing environment?  No argument there.  Is there greater shielding from the effects of that environmental change in government than in other sectors?  Yes, probably (though that needs to be a description, not an excuse).  But is all that a sign that government is operating in some different and more antique world than other large, long-established organisations?  That’s much less clear.  As I have reflected on before, there are reasons for change in government being slow which aren’t intrinsic to its being government.