Can a better understanding of human nature help Lib Dem policy development

Is Lib Dem policy and philosophy getting all mixed up? Are we confusing incentives when it comes to human nature? Have we not fully understood the realities of combining the different strands of our party? Economic and social liberalism have produced many benefits in their own right and the instinct to combine them has produced some very interesting politics. Now we are in Government these policy ideas may be well tested, however, we need to continue the search for better policy initiatives and ideas.

Currently the thinking has very much been around creating incentives. On the micro level there is the Government’s ‘nudge unit’  and on a wider level there is the Government’s pro-choice, pro-business, pro-competition agenda, which gains applause from all areas of life:

Cable’s pro-competition agenda should certainly be applauded – The Guardian

The Lib Dems thinking has indeed been focused on this for years and Vince Cable wrote in the Orange Book that no one really suggests that there should only be one public service (for whatever service) considering how much choice there is in the rest of our lives, and besides choice improves standards. All of which is very true. However, such pro-competition agenda’s are not the be-all and end-all when it comes to working with human nature and only focusing on this will reduce the policy ideas and the results will not be as expected.

Human nature certainly has competitive forces which help us strive for status and resources (for example) and using a choice agenda will utilize this area of our nature. However, it ignores the cooperative forces of our human nature which are equally as powerful and lead us to strive for fairness and reciprocity as well as seek for a group identity.

we’re born with a dual nature, with great potential for selfishness and altruism, greed and generosity, status-seeking and fairness-seeking – Secrets of the Moneylab

The Lib Dems have focused forcefully on the fairness agenda which I believe works well with the cooperative forces of our nature as well as the competition agenda which works with our competitive side. On the face of it this is all well and good. However, the fairness agenda has typically focused on using competition to create this fairness as we have begun to fuse the social and economic liberal philosophies. Again there is no problem in doing this if it creates good results but it fails to tap into the human need to belong or to give something back, the real cooperative forces in our lives.

Focusing on this area of our human nature opens up a whole new approach to policy development. The Big Society may be a way to achieve this, as it the Lib Dems fairness agenda. But people have to see tangible ways of having these needs met or they won’t believe it. Just look at this recent jibe at Nick Clegg.

But there are examples all over the world where this area has been the focus and it has been working. I have been documenting some of them on my blog under Collaboration and Collaborative Governance. There are many ways to give people tangible, specific ways of getting involved in their communities, in their government, in their services. There are tangible ways of using people’s energy, wisdom and inventiveness to make this country more cohesive and our country more proud.

In Australia a book was written about how to achieve this in the corporate world it has also been used to improve  business. If we are able to have clear policy initiatives and ideas based on social and economic liberalism effectively utilizing both our competitive and cooperative selves, we have a much more powerful program for reform: Choice and Voice, Competition and Collaboration.

What is Collaborative Governance?

The Policy Consensus Initiative highlights some useful texts in collaborative governance such as the Practical Guide to Collaborative Governance & Training Manual. They have a useful outline of collaborative governance which is worth repeating:

What is Collaborative Governance?

Leaders engaging with all sectors—public, private, non-profit, citizens, and others—to develop effective, lasting solutions to public problems that go beyond what any sector could achieve on its own.

What results does it produce?

The best public solutions come from people working together on issues. Collaborative governance takes as its starting point the idea that working together creates more lasting, effective solutions.

  • Lasting—Solutions developed through collaborative governance won’t simply be undone in the next year or legislative session.
  • Effective—The collaborative governance approach ensures that the realities of the situation are considered and discussed; decisions are not made in a vacuum.
  • More buy-in—From the outset, all with a stake are involved in authentic ways; all have a role in the final agreement.

Why is it needed?

  • Accelerating change
  • Overlapping institutions and jurisdictions
  • Increasing complexity
  • A need to integrate policies and resources

How is this different from “government?”

“Governance” is the process by which public ends and means are identified, agreed upon, and pursued. This is different than “government,” which relates to the specific jurisdiction in which authority is exercised. “Governance” is a broader term and encompasses both formal and informal systems of relationships and networks for decision making and problem solving.

What does it take?

Collaborative governance requires three elements:

  1. Sponsor- an agency, foundation, civic organization, public-private coalition, etc. to initiate and provide support
  2. Convener/Leader- a governor, legislator, local official, respected civic leader, etc. with power to bring diverse people together to work on common problems
  3. Neutral Forum- an impartial organization or venue, etc. to provide and ensure skilled process managament

How does it work?

The System integrates the principles and network to assure an effective collaborative governance process:

  • Sponsors identify and raise an issue
  • Assessment is made on the feasibility for collaboration and who needs to be involved
  • Leader(s) convene all needed participants
  • Participants adopt this framework for addressing the issue
  • Conveners and participants frame (or reframe) the issue for deliberation
  • Neutral forum/facilitator designs and conducts a process to negotiate interests and integrate resources
  • Written agreement establishes accountability
  • Sponsors identify and raise an issue or opportunity that calls for a collaborative response

This collaborative governance system can work anywhere as long as several key principles are adhered to: transparency; equity and inclusiveness; effectiveness and efficiency; responsiveness; accountability; forum neutrality; and consensus-based decision making.

In Praise of AmericaSpeaks: Engaging citizens in participation with government

AmericaSpeaks21st Century Town Meetings® are different way of getting citizens to participate in a debate, a method of collecting ideas and themes and a way to produce policies. They state that these meetings are

engaging, meaningful opportunities for citizens to participate in public decision making… attempting to address the needs of today’s citizens and decision makers

… each meeting restores the balance of the “political playing field” by engaging hundreds or thousands of general interest citizens at a time, quickly summarizing citizen input and priorities, and widely disseminating the results through media coverage.

In these meetings, citizens engage around issues governments at all levels face, from public policy to land-use planning to public budgeting.  The use of these meetings is not limited to the public sector: they have been used by large non-profit associations, global leadership forums, and annual meetings for other organizations. A video of this process can be seen here:

This is a good model of engaging many citizens, sometimes thousands and sometimes all in one go. It gives an excellent model of how to achieve collaboration and partnership between citizen and state. Imagine if decisions were made in this country by this method. We may not like the result but we would know it came from a majority of people fully engaged in a professional process that was open to us. But then again, we may like the result? This is a different way of looking at how government works. A step towards collaborative governance.

A radically different approach to the spending cuts: A collaborative approach, a liberal approach

There is a contradiction in the Conservative approach. On one hand we have Dave telling us that it is our country and we need to have more of a say in how it operates. On the other we have George telling us what a mess our finances are in and that he needs to make some difficult decisions on our behalf. Imagine how different things may have looked if the government had taken Dave’s approach to the spending cuts.

In America they did just that and it serves as an example to us as opposed to this tired paternalistic Tory approach. In the USA, 3,500 Americans came together across 57 cities to discuss the nation’s finances in a day long Town Meeting. Liberals and conservatives, young and old, rich and poor, people of all races and ethnicities sat together in authentic conversation.

They used satellite and webcast link-ups connected cities across the country to create a truly nationwide conversation.  Participants were given the opportunity to discuss their greatest hopes for the future and their concerns about the economic recovery process. They were presented with 42 options developed along with the Our Budget, Our Economy National Advisory Committee. In addition to expressing preferences among the options, they were able to suggest new additional options.

The results looked something like this:

  • 85% of participants expressed support for reducing defence spending by at least 5% (which included 51% of participants who expressed support for a 15% cut)
  • 68% of participants expressed support for reducing all other Non-Defense spending by at least 5%
  • 62% of participants expressed support for reducing health care spending by at least 5%.
  • No options for reducing Social Security benefits received a majority of support.
  • 60% of participants expressed support for raising the cap on payroll taxes to 90%
  • 54% of participants expressed support for raising income taxes on those earning more than $1 million by five percent
  • 52% of participants expressed support for raising personal tax rates for the top two income brackets by at least 10%
  • 54% of participants expressed support for establishing a carbon tax
  • 50% of participants supported the establishment of a securities-transaction tax
  • No options for reducing deductions and credits received majority support
  • Participants were evenly divided about options presented to reform the tax code

The results were submitted to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform for its public meeting on Wednesday, June 30, 2010.

This is an excellent model for government collaboration with citizens. Giving power to the people, allowing people to have a real say, influencing the government that they essentially own. It is a world away from the approach taken by George. When it comes to difficult decisions, maybe he needs to think about letting go of the old tory ways and embrace the ‘new politics’?

In Praise of Citizen’s Parliament: A model for partnership working between state and citizen

Citizens Parliament in Australia has shown a good example of a way to get citizens involved in politics in a non-conventional manner. 150 citizens were convened to consider ways of improving the governmental system and they then presented their recommendations to parliament.You can watch a video of the process here:

What was successful was that they attracted wide publicity and engaged top government leadership. Most importantly though they created a positive experience for the participants and generated a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm about public policy and the political process. The Citizens Parliament allowed a large number of people to deliberate in individually facilitated small groups which used electronic voting technology to instantaneously show trending and final policy preferences.

This project did not focus on a single issue but encouraged participants to develop ideas on the general theme of reform government so that it could better serve people’s needs. However, the application is much wider than a repetition of this in the UK. This is a potential model for collaboration and partnership between citizens and government and used in the right way can foster empowerment for many on many different issues.

More evidence Collaborative Governance is becoming an inevitability

Collaborative Governance is a term which has been gaining more popularity in recent years although remains on the periphery of national debate. So why is Harvard University looking at preparing students for a change to collaborative governance?

The benefits of collaborative governance are potentially huge as I have written about recently such as reducing costs, gaining a better ideas and using better expertise and knowledge. However, it also has a moral element in that it opens up the power structures to the people who will be subjects of the decisions of this power. Something which is dear to any liberal’s hearts.

So while this debate may be in its infancy with many never having heard of it, I find it very interesting to see Harvard University asking

What, and how, should we teach our students (both degree and non-degree students) to equip them for useful roles in structures of collaborative governance?

They go on to attempt to outline what could potentially be taught in the paper Donahue, John. 2004. “On Collaborative Governance.” Corporate Social Responsibilty Initiative Working Paper No. 2. Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University which can be found here.

However, they are not alone in this change of focus as it is part of a larger movement to more proactive services where citizens are partners with the government. As part of this movement there is now a University Network of Collaborative Governance

The Network is made up of forward-thinking centers and programs that engage in service and scholarship to enable citizens and their leaders to engage in dialogue, discussion, problem solving, and conflict resolution around public issues.

More can be read about the network here.

Cameron’s speech has shown new political battlelines for pro-establishment vs anti-establishment

Following David Cameron’s speech the verdict is… either a failure of David Cameron to explain or a failure of those listening to try and understand. Depending on who you are depends on your position.

I find it very interesting that we have a Tory talking about a fundamental change in relationship between state and citizen yet the Guardian has this to say:

A recent Ipsos Mori poll found that 55% of people had never even heard of the big society; 54% thought it was good in principle but wouldn’t work in practice. The big society is, and always has been, a dead duck… Cameron would be well advised to let the big society go – despite his best attempts to explain it, it just doesn’t chime with the times we are in. 

I’m afraid I could not disagree more. The way we are governed now is dated and is not working. A large bureaucratic system does not allow for people’s views to be taken seriously. It has resulted in lives being ruined or cut short (e.g. medicines due to NICE), lives are made harder by a denial of available support (JobCentre, Social Services, Mental Health Services), or hardship because of money they have to pay because of the way the system is set up, while there are clear cheaper alternative methods available (see Total Place thinking). It is a moral and ethical case that requires us to change the old system.

We will not longer be seen as customers of services but as partners of the government. We will be able to have a voice in the table of power. Changes will take place in real time in response to real life situations. We have the means and it is being tried all over the world right now (see some of my blog posts on Collaboration). It is an inevitability as it is a moral case. The Big Society is David Cameron’s attempt to go with this new movement of change.

The fact that David Cameron is on the right lines but has not hit the right note does not mean the idea is rubbish. He is on to something and some will defend the status quo but anyone interested in fairness and in liberty should start making it their business to understand what he is trying to say. It leaves a massive political gap for someone to come in and communicate this new message for these new times.

How about this: You own the government but you have little say in how it works and what you get back. I would like to change this so you have the power, you have the say, you make the decisions. We will support you, your ideas, and your creativity in making your community work for you. We will give you advisors, budgets, resources and power and you can make this country work as you want it to. Central government will be smaller, local government will be stronger, there will be less bureaucracy and so changes will happen quicker. We want government to be your partner.

I don’t call it the Big Society as this is too vague and some of what comes under the big society sounds too much like preaching to people about what they should or should not be doing with their time. I call the liberal idea of this new political settlement Collaborative Governance. It has nothing to do with cuts. It is a straight forward moral case that a new way of doing things will mean people’s lives will be better as a result.

A Unifying Theory for the Lib Dems Current Dilemmas: Collaborative Governance

The current perception is that this government is all about cutting the deficit. David Cameron has gone out of his way to state that this is not the case and that it is also about a change in power relationship between the citizen and the state. I would love to see this happen but there is skepticism that this is a cover for cuts. The Lib Dems have gone along with the cuts but I am not hearing anything from them reinventing the state in any detail?

If the Lib Dems want to start gaining back the people who voted for them, let alone more of those who didn’t, they need to start showing why. I have written a lot about moving to collaborative governance, where citizens and government and its agencies are partners; a fundamental change in their relationship. So it is interesting to read that according to a report by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and nef (new economics foundation) that doing this can create big savings. While this report calls this ‘people-powered public services’ it does state that moving to collaborative services could generate savings of up to six times the investment made in them.

This would essentially tie the two strands of what this government is supposed to be about together. It would give a liberal narrative, economic and social: A change in power relationship between the state and citizens and make savings. This is what the Lib Dems should be shouting about.


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