There is something wrong with government. The UK has been paralysed by a single political issue for some four years; there are moves to impeach the US president; the EU is torn between social democracy and Orban-style “illiberal democracy”. China advocates its administrative system, justifiably, as one which permits breakneck development and the lifting of millions out of poverty, whilst Hong Kong is riven by demonstrations against precisely that system. The promise of the Arab spring has in most places collapsed into new dictatorships or civil war. Fukuyama-ist managerialism is giving way to protectionism, globalisation to nativism. It is time to rethink the whole project.
How welcome then that a new study does just that. NESTA, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, a UK charity which describes itself as an “innovation foundation”, has recently published “Radical Visions of Future Government”, a highly detailed and thoughtful look at ideas, concepts and approaches to public administration.
Building on a number of previous NESTA foresight projects, including in health, education and local government, the work, across some 170 pages, addresses future trust, future roles and future mindsets, featuring “essays, provocations, thought experiments, fiction, speculative design and original art”.
Future roles examines “how the roles and skills of public sector staff, politicians and citizens will need to change to meet the challenges of the future”. A delightful grab bag of ideas, this section covers everything from better communication to an update of the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Review; and crowdsourced opinions from public servants. Creative, thoughtful contributions take the form of a scrapbook of documents from 2030, where public servants are now “creative facilitators” helping climate change damaged communities live better locally; to the excellent Sacrosanctuary, a feasibility study for a country for refugees. The opportunity to start from scratch, to develop the basic principles of a new state, is an opportunity the author, Vik Sasi, grabs with both hands, in a careful act of thoughtful reinvention.
Future mindsets looks at some of the ways we may be able to think better in the future. Steering the fine line between practicality and utopianism, pieces of speculative fiction examine the macro (government and society in 2030) and the micro (Waltham Forest). The latter contains interesting lessons for wide-based participatory futures work, taking foresight away from the workshop and into the community, and has some powerful writing which could play an important part in driving forwards social-based futures thinking. Dystopian, idealistic and engaging contributions include a board game, and essays on government innovations including a rather lovely piece on devolution or “co-governance”.
Of course, thinking about a future mindset implies that the current mindset needs to change, and Schlimm and Chabeaux’s piece The Others argues that “a radical vision for future government is futile without also considering fundamental changes to the underlying economic system it exists alongside”. In a collection of work as wide-ranging as this, it is right to include a piece which comprehensively reworks the very model of government itself. The danger of straying into high politics is not avoided, but it is refreshing to see a thorough reworking of the concepts of government themselves.
The third section, Future Trust, “deals with questions about what would it take to reinvigorate democracy, trust, and citizens’ relationship with their government”. Covering government use of data, reform of Parliament, AI regulation and a wholesale reworking of the very concept of government itself, this is perhaps the most important, yet most challenging section. It comes with some clear underlying concepts of what is “good” as far as government is concerned – democracy, citizen involvement, devolution, localisation – and I would have liked to see some clear explanation of why these particular principles are seen as good in themselves – over, perhaps, the Chinese, Scandinavian, or even the old one-nation Tory, models. A danger in foresight is that elements get baked into the foresight process from the outset, and in a work as radical and useful as this one, the opportunity to overturn the whole process and start from the very beginning is one which is only really taken by Sasi in Sacrosanctuary.
After 170 pages of dense, thought through, engaging work, what have NESTA given us? Firstly, congratulations are due. The breadth, sweep and sheer flair of delivering such a comprehensive review is an achievement in itself. Radical Visions shows us that there are ways of imagining the future which are positive and possible. The range of voices, and of viewpoints, is encouraging and refreshing (and has the major advantage in a work of this length of assuring that it doesn’t get boring). The mix of politics and practicality is useful; the clear underlying assumptions perhaps less so. In his foreword, Tom Symons, NESTA’s head of government innovation research, says that their intention is that Radical Visions “helps to provoke a debate” about the “questions of genuine importance as we embark upon a new decade of government and public services”. Job done. It is now up to those people who make decisions on our behalf to engage – and that, I suspect, is where the hard work really begins.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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