Public service in the hour of chaos

I want to propose a shift in the way we see ourselves as public servants. At the moment, one of the most common terms people apply to us is technocrat, implying that we are decision makers selected for our special expertise in a particular area. We can debate whether this is really what exists in Whitehall or local government, but regardless of the answer I think we need a new term to define the kind of public service we need for the 21st century. With a nod to Geoff Mulgan, I propose connexocrat.

We live in the hour of chaos. Climate breakdown and Brexit are only the most visible symptoms. What underpins both of them — and many of our other challenges — is a broken set of social relations. People who feel powerless and left behind by a world which seems driven by vast, inhuman forces will eventually act on that. Extinction Rebellion does a really good job of explicitly recognising the grief and trauma which powers its movement. Brexiteers have a tendency to express their emotions rather differently, but who can doubt that many of them are acting from a similarly deep-seated set of anxieties?

The central job of our times is to create a new and living culture within our organisations and wider society that is capable of rising to the challenges we face. Regular readers will know that I think culture precedes most other things, because it defines what a group of people believes to be possible.

Carl Jung said that we never really solve our problems, but we do outgrow them. And yet the technocratic model of public service is all about solutions. We fetishise data and social science, seeking the certainty they seem to promise about how to solve things. The truth is that their ability to provide us with answers is extremely limited. We have had over 100 years of brilliant social science on poverty, but not only is the problem still here, it is about to reach record levels on some measures. The real danger of the pseudo-science of public administration is that it creates a sense of fake certainty, convincing us we can predict and control in areas where that is impossible (see previous posts on budgeting, a discipline particularly plagued by fake certainty).

Adrian Brown has written elsewhere about the way that we focus too much on what government should do, and not enough on what it should be. He’s right, as usual. But the same argument applies to us as public servants. What (and who) should we be? Here’s where the idea of the connexocrat might come in. Let me try and explain…

For me, the fundamental job of public service is social change. Trying to approach this job with a regression analysis is pretty useless. If we want change, then policy goes beyond analysis, money and decisions and instead encompasses a vastly wider range of tools. It depends on the cultures we create, because ultimately culture is the biggest constraint on any large organisation. And the cultures we create depend on who we are, our relationships to one another, our behaviour within those relationships, and the behaviour we inspire from others.

I find XR a really interesting example of this. It’s a decentralised social movement whose power comes from giving people worried about the climate a practical action they can take as individuals. This is coupled with a deep sense of emotional connection through the concept of grieving for the planet and loss of species, and a deep sense of togetherness and agency during rebellions. Off the back off this, a heroic dose of Ibogaine, and some clever design work, a handful of people built a global movement which has irrevocably changed the debate on climate.

The connexocrat is a figure that is focused on relationships, recognising that building and holding a strong mesh of interpersonal connections is a better way to making remote decisions about how to wield state power and money. In their world, policy is any intervention which seeks to shift their mesh of relationships in a useful way. The key information they need is the warm data of human feedback loops and connectedness. Their job is deep understanding of the human situation they find themselves in, and to act with humility and respect to improve things. The only kind of transformation they need to seek is of the sense of possibility around them. They should only rarely be the power, and more often the current.

The connexocrat needs data and analysis, but she would use them as a way to validate and explore the warm data, never as a starting point. What public servants really need in this world are skills around presence, self-awareness, solidarity- and movement-building.

One way I’ve started thinking about this idea is by imagining who would speak at a Solace conference for connexocrats. I’d have Gail Bradbrook as the keynote, because she’s the most interesting thinker on social change in Britain today. Anab Jain would speak on futurism. I’d find a way for pretty much the entire Impact Hub Brum crew to be involved, but particularly Immy and Meg. We’d have Audrey Tang on Skype and someone from Enspiral. Nora Bateson would chair everything. Hilary Cottam was at the actual Solace conference this year, and she can come to mine as well. The only evaluation question will be whether or not Catherine Howe has a good time.

The idea of the connexocrat is designed to help us break out of the remaining vestiges of new public management and start embracing a wilder and more romantic future. I don’t want us to ignore the possibilities of technology or the power of data, but I do insist that these things are put at the service of our dreams, as we try to rebuild the emotional fabric of a traumatised society.

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Simon Parker

Central government irregular. Ideas for everyone. Tend to start on twitter, write up raw drafts here, sometimes get published in respectable places.