A Vision for Better Government
I recently published some thoughts exploring the difference between being and doing in government. That post led to a number of fascinating conversations about a new vision for government that seems to be emerging around the world. As this vision is expressed in different ways in different places, it can be difficult to join the dots and many people (myself included) have wondered if it might be possible to coalesce around a single, simple set of statements that capture the main themes (much like the Agile Manifesto did in the software development community).
What follows is an attempt to do this. It is, no doubt, poorly articulated and incomplete, but I offer it as a starting point in the hope that together we can build something better.
Why do we need a new manifesto for government?
Our models of government are broken and in urgent need of reform. They are based on a flawed “industrial” mindset that seeks to manage and control. As such, they don’t recognise the true nature of the challenges we face, fail to tap our collective human potential to address those challenges and offer static solutions to dynamic problems.
As a result, governments around the world are facing deficits in both effectiveness and legitimacy. A deficit of effectiveness because our models of government are ill-equipped to tackle some of the most urgent issues we face as society. A deficit of legitimacy because people feel increasingly disillusioned with government and see it as distant and impersonal.
Making government more effective and legitimate requires more than simply changing processes and practices. We need a refreshed vision for government founded on a new set of beliefs, values and principles.
A new vision for government founded on three core beliefs
- Most of the challenges we face as a society are complex in nature. They involve many actors, interacting in a variety of ways. Outcomes are emergent properties of these systems.
- The quality of human relationships matters a great deal. We assume positive intent and trust people, sharing power and supporting each other to make the best decisions.
- Progress is best achieved through experimentation and a process of continuous learning. Because change is constant, and failures are inevitable in the face of complexity, we should seek to maximise the capacity of public systems to learn and adapt on an ongoing basis.
Each of these beliefs represents a radical shift from the prevailing mindset found in many governments today. They imply a different set of values to guide government action.
The core values of more effective and legitimate government
- Humility, because no individual (or individual organisation) can achieve sustained positive change in a complex system by themselves.
- Openness, because working in the open is the best way to allow the free flow of ideas and inspiration.
- Empathy, because in seeking to understand others we broaden our perspective and create the conditions for stronger relationships.
- Authenticity, because strong human relationships are built on honest, authentic connections
- Trust, because this gives people the agency and motivation to act and helps creates the conditions for sustainable change.
- Curiosity, because this focuses our attention on what we don’t know and challenges us to increase our understanding.
- Diversity, because diversity of thought and diversity of practice accelerates learning and demographic diversity strengthens legitimacy.
These values apply to individuals, to teams, to organisations and system-wide. They help to foster mutual respect and collaboration between those seeking to achieve positive social change.
The beliefs and values lead to a set of principles that can help guide action
- Think systemically, act locally. Our actions should be informed by an awareness of the system but focused on encouraging local ownership.
- Share power with those best placed to act. Devolve decision-making rights to those with the information and agency to make a difference.
- Challenge unnecessary hierarchy and collaborate across boundaries. Where possible encourage multi-disciplinary teams working in flat structures.
- Seek out strengths and build on them. This helps create a more positive foundation for change.
- Champion the voices of those who are heard the least. This helps to promote diversity of thought and create a more inclusive conversation.
- Optimise for learning rather than control. The capacity of the system to learn is more important than for someone to be in charge.
This is not a complete list, but rather an indicative set of principles that flow from the beliefs and values.
Taken together, the beliefs, values and principles inform how government acts, from high-level policy to the human interactions that shape our experience of government on a day-to-day basis.
I don’t think anyone should “own” this vision, so I’m sharing it here as a starting point to continue — and indeed grow — the community of forward thinking individuals and organisations that I know are working in this space. Ultimately it could be something that people choose to “sign” to show their support.
If you are interested in helping to iterate and improve this manifesto please contact me @_adrianbrown or email firstname.lastname@example.org.