Tuesday, 29 May 2018

How can experts help governments think?

Note: this is the written text forming the conclusion of the author's Inaugural Lecture, held at Oxford Brookes University on Wednesday 9 May. It does not match the lecture as delivered, the whole of which is available here

At least experts aren’t charlatans

To sum up: there are six ways of both thinking and acting that might help us make public policy. Puzzle, rather than power. Delete your old drafts. Take the long view. Test, measure and test again. Accept uncertainty. Enable others. Such approaches are much more persuasive, I think, than that of our present political leaders. I’ve singled out just a few for special treatment here, which is probably not very fair, but I couldn’t help myself… Just a few egregious recent examples might include: the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice (Richard Burgon), one of the most Eurosceptical Conservative Members of the European Parliament (Dan Hannan), the Foreign Secretary (Boris Johnson), and the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade (Barry Gardiner).

Now I am just putting up these particular faces as examples of two party leaderships that are currently trying to sell you two very unconvincing stories, which I might sum up as ‘train nationalisation versus Brexit’. But their views on all sorts of things might help me make a wider point. I am genuinely sorry to say this, but I cannot stress it enough: these people are charlatans. And none of them is worse than the charlatan-in-chief, the darkly comic character often known only as ‘Boris’ – a man so bent out of shape by political ambition that he makes a plumb-line look like a pretzel. They are willing to say blue is red, and red is blue. That up is down, and down is up. On public spending, on trade, on Brexit, on their own parties’ blind spots and prejudices, they seem to have no sense of shame itself. Whatever else experts are – academics, planners, educators, scientists, economists – they are not outright charlatans. That is a low bar, admittedly, but for the most part they handily clear it. Many of our political leaders do not. And though hard to quantify, it is unfortunately difficult to avoid the conclusion that this situation has got worse, not better, over the last three or four years.

One reason for this is our increasingly bitter partisanship. If you take a look at social media maps of present party political competition, for instance those assembled by the think tank Demos over the course of the 2017 General Election campaign, they show a very clear clustering by party. There is in this world very little engagement between each group, but also – just as worrying – less engagement the further away each cluster is from another on the ideological plane. So there is a little engagement between social media accounts run by self-declared Conservative and Labour supporters, but almost none between (for instance) UKIP and Labour, and especially UKIP and the SNP. Now, UKIP were much less of an electoral presence in Scotland than elsewhere, so that will explain some of the differential there, but the consequences for a Parliament that could well have contained a few UKIP MPs – and did contain 56 SNP MPs – could have been very rancorous indeed.

Recent days have injected into our politics a poisonous tone of hatred that was not quite there before – or, at least, did not contain the air of threat, the tightened atmosphere, that has pertained since the tragic murder of the Batley and Spen MP, Jo Cox. Her motto, ‘more in common’, is today observed more as pious incantation than real insight. Instead, rival tribes of Left and Right roam the political landscape, meting out justice to those they deem insufficiently committed to their questionable cause. Their very similar techniques reveal them to in fact share much more than they would like to admit. Delegitimisation of their opponents – especially their internal opponents. The fanning of social media fury. The deployment of anonymous swarms of trolls and bots. Loyalty tests. A semi-sponsored (but deniable) ‘new media’ of alt-Right and alt-Left. A dark humour that dares others to draw the boundary between real statements and a self-knowing mocking set of poses. The employment of intellectual outriders who say what the leaders cannot say. And lastly: outright untruth.

Here is the reality. Extremists of both Right and Left are trying to pull this country apart. Right now, they are succeeding: so much so that British politics looks like Humpty Dumpty, broken to bits at the bottom of his wall. In part this is because the joint approach of the cadres now in charge of the two main parties can only smash. It cannot build. It is superficially attractive, but actually on closer inspection sunk deep in philosophical error.

Intellectually, their fundamental misconception of our collective life exists at two levels. The first is that they claim to have not just an answer, but the answer. On the Right, Brexit will solve your problems. Unemployment? Low wages? Record levels of immigration? Over-subscribed schools? Over-fishing? Let Brexit fix it for you. On the Left, the state will intervene. Your train is late? Your university is expensive? Social care is broken? Let the taxpayer fix it for you. I need hardly add that these approaches are likely to prove misleading.

It’s not that they are necessarily incorrect as far as detail goes. For instance: rail nationalisation probably would lead to some benefits emanating from the integration of services with track infrastructure. It’s that the Ministers and Shadow Ministers talking in this way seem unaware of the way policy is actually made, subject to all the constraints of time and thought and energy I hope I have followed in this lecture. To perhaps unfairly pick on Labour’s plans: is the state really going to be able to manage the backwash from Brexit, and nationalise much of the utilities sector, and completely reform England’s Higher Education system, and launch a new state-led infrastructure programme, and reach much more ambitious housing targets, and fund the National Health Service so that it meets all our needs, and save social care? The answer is no. Of course not. No single Labour government could possibly hope to do those things – a prelude to another round of our current political malaise.

I think that the most profound objection is not that these pronouncements are disingenuous, or likely to be inefficacious – though they are – but that they are morally wrong. Because it is wrong to offer people not only that which you know will never be, but that which you know in private simply cannot be.

Because such leaders aim, secondly, at certainty, at control – at timeless end-points that are desirable in and of themselves and that live in a kind of eschatological forever-present, both millennial and millinnerial, final states privileged and rarefied as if they are principles to be exalted rather than tools to help people progress. Unfortunately, no such public policy end-point exists.

Given these two very worrying trends in what might be termed the deep presumptions, the trigger motions and prejudices of those who seek to lead us – a fixation on certainty, and a focus on theoretical aims rather than paths towards actually better lives – it is hard to be optimistic about the recommendations in any lecture. Unless and until you yourselves, as voters and citizens, say ‘stop’, politicians will continue to act like this. Experts can warn all they want. Only politics – new demands on politicians to put their foot on the brake – can effect actual change. It’s not about what I know. It’s about what you know.

If only there were people who could help

Experts can’t tell you exactly what to do. But they can draw you a map, an aim that perhaps does not sound very ambitious, but may contain rather more hope than at first appears. To speak like a historian, for instance: we live at a very gritty time in our public life. But the long view tells us that things have been much worse, and also that they will get better. It is not 1931. Our entire economic system is not teetering on the brink of dissolution. It is not 1940. Britain’s armed forces are not clinging to North-West Europe, betrayed by a near decade-long retreat in the face of the dictators. It is not 1976, with inflation surging and Britain forced to surrender its budgetary autonomy to the International Monetary Fund. It is not 1981, when a sado-monetarist drive towards inefficient so-called ‘efficiency’ wiped out a tranche of the UK’s manufacturing sector. Our situation was far more serious then, and we recovered. All this can be done in a better way. We can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Tonight I have suggested a handful of ways in which we can negotiate our way out of some of those systemic malfunctions. Legislate at caution, and slowly. Rip up what’s not working, rather than double down on your mistakes. Look ahead. Check your workings. Accept help, even from unlikely places. Embrace mess. Think. Analyse. Devolve. Because experts can at least sketch the alternative marching routes for both governments and voters. Tomorrow, like every other day, all sorts of people will get up and do just that. In universities, for instance, we will research, and write, and teach, and speak, and engage, and consult, as per usual. Maybe people should start listening a bit more to the recommendations that are both implicit and explicit in universities’ work. It can’t hurt.

Perhaps all that’s just process. Just administration. But I would bet quite a lot on the following: it doesn’t seem like process if you’ve lived in the UK for half a century and you can’t get cancer treatment on the NHS. It doesn’t look like administration if the house your single mum rents is going to be taken away from you because your tax credits have been messed up, or if you’re that single mum and your kids are crying and you don’t know what to do. It’s not a matter of mere detail if your Personal Independence Payment assessors say you can work when you can’t walk out of your front door. It’s not a little thing if you’re eighty years old, and you need a hip replacement, and you need to take four buses to get to see your General Practitioner. It probably seems quite important.

Those recommendations might seem small. They aren’t. It is not ‘technocratic’ to insist that real people’s services and lives get better. It is not bloodless to focus on delivery. It is not any sort of ideals-light ‘centrism’ to believe that what you say you will do will actually get done. It does not speak to a lack of commitment, or care, or passion, if you reject the divisive politics of social media bellowing. On the contrary: all of that might be found at least near the heart of a better politics that people actually feel they recognise, they own and they like.

Expertise can all us to build both signposts and waymarkers. It can tell us all where we’ve been, and where we might be going. It can provide a link between the islands of what we know, and allow us to circumvent the ersatz or even false knowledge of what passes for our political leadership. Experts do not know much. But they can walk with you as guides, and travel with you along these much-neglected, forgotten, overgrown – but far from hollow – ways.

Thank you very much for listening, and good evening.


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