The power of ignorance in policymaking

Adrian Brown
Centre for Public Impact
3 min readOct 1, 2019


The most powerful phrase a policymaker can say is “I don’t know”. It signals humility in the face of complexity. It actively shifts power to others. It creates empathy and space for dialogue with those better placed to understand a problem. And, above all, it is invariably true.

So why don’t we say it more often? Why is so much of our policy debate built on the self-deception that we know more than we do and can control more than we can?

I don’t know. But speaking to people who work in policy and government offers some (non-exhaustive) clues.

First, there’s basic human psychology. Humans don’t like uncertainty and many of us have built up our self-image as “people who know”. To admit ignorance is to undermine our very image of who we are. We are taught from a very early age that we are supposed to have the answers.

This bias is then reflected in our organisations. What use is a traditional management hierarchy if the people at the top know no more (and arguably less) than those at the bottom of the pyramid? Line accountability and centralized power structures make little sense in such a world.

On top of this, our political and public discourse punishes humility and rewards false certainty. The government minister facing hostile questioning is far better advised to make declarative statements (true or otherwise) rather than simply saying she has no idea.

These are powerful forces that cannot be easily overcome, and many argue we are currently heading in the wrong direction. Populism, offering simple answers to complex problems, is on the rise. Meanwhile, ever-increasing amount of data provide decision-makers with the reassuring (false) belief that we can now, finally, measure what matters.

What is encouraging, is that there are a growing number of examples where policymakers are trying a different approach. One that promotes humility over false certainty.

In Wigan, a town in northern England, the council has adopted an approach that explicitly rejects top-down solutionism in favour of empowering frontline workers and the local community to develop answers for themselves.

In The Netherlands, Buurtzorg, an adult social care organization, has replaced traditional hierarchy with self-managing teams of nurses who determine how they spend their time and what constitutes success.

And in New Zealand, the entire paradigm of “New Public Management”, with its focus managerial efficiency and control, is being challenged by a reinvigoration of public service values.

More generally, there is a global movement emerging around a set of reformers who are challenging the traditional models of policymaking by drawing on ideas from disciplines as diverse as complexity theory, deliberative democracy and agile software development.

In contrast to trends such as “What Works”, which emphasize what we know (or think we know) this movement points to the inherent uncertainty of policy, of systems, and of human beings, and instead explores responses that embrace that uncertainty rather than attempting to “manage” it.

I’ve used the word enablement to describe this mindset. Rather than seeking to control, it encourages policymakers to ask how we can help to create the conditions from which good outcomes are more likely to emerge.

The Centre for Public Impact has described the Shared Power Principle as a guide for those seeking to explore this terrain and made suggestions for what it could mean in practice.

For example, promoting the use of performance data for learning and self-improvement within the system rather than primarily as an accountability tool. Or focusing on the more messy, relational aspects of services rather than simply describing them as a set of standardized transactions.

At a personal level, it’s about exploring the power of vulnerability, which is something I’ve specifically been trained to avoid. It’s no longer true (if it ever was) that the smartest person in the room is the one always armed with a PowerPoint slide and a three-point plan.

Crucially, saying “I don’t know” doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. To the contrary, it broadens our minds to recognize the wealth of possibilities outside the traditional toolbox and (somewhat counter-intuitively) increases the chance of achieving more together.