Blair and Brown always used to talk of “delivering”: government laid their presents at the doors of the little houses. The Cameroons understand that this isn’t the right way to think about the world anymore. People now go to the supermarket and get stuff for themselves.
PBA (the post-bureaucratic age model) is a truly a ‘big idea’, worthy of being the controlling idea for a new government. Trouble is, to put it gently, it lacks a certain populist edge. It won’t win a single vote. It can even lose you votes, when you tell people that the milkman is no longer coming down their street. Maybe that’s no big deal, but what does matter is: how can you make it part of the mandate? This is potentially a big problem: to win a campaign, you need to show you have that fire in the belly to make things better for people, that you are a leader, that you are on the side of the people and that you will change things for them. The milkman returns. Confusion.
A possible solution is to make PBA clearly a business policy. This isn’t fair to the true breadth of the idea, because it applies just as much to Michael Gove’s education policy. But it’s as a business policy that PBA is best understood, and this has the strong advantage of separating it from the more traditional themes of a campaign, without any dishonesty. Nobody expects government to turn itself into a Google-style piece of infrastructure overnight. But relations with business should certainly change the moment Cameron enters Number 10.
Below is a piece I wrote on the subject for the booklet of the “ConservativeIntelligence” conference.
Business and the Cameroons
David Cameron and his team will deal with the public in a fundamentally different way to previous governments. They will be the first government to have grown up in the Internet age, and they will see things and behave in ways that is defined by the web.
Anyone who has run business knows that to succeed, you need to be close to the customer. That has always been the case, and there’s no change to that now. Where there is a change, and it is transformative, is in what ‘close’ means.
Anyone who has created a business on the Internet knows that you must see the world through the eyes of your customer, and that you should go even further: allow your customers, your community, actually to participate in the creation of your business. That will apply to an Internet-age government too.
When Gordon Brown faces a new issue, he calls together a circle of his special people. In contrast, though of course he also relies on a tight inner team, David Cameron also surfs the web. He really does. He feels instinctively connected, in a way that anyone born after 1960 does. He hears the chatter of the blogosphere and it’s part of his means of perception, unlike Gordon Brown or even Tony Blair who, for all their modernism, never understood the web. That makes Cameron different in a way that will affect how he and his team will do business with business.
They hate the very idea of old-style public affairs, of privileged conversations. I make no ethical point here, I do not suggest that in their hearts they are morally better, just that this generation thinks differently because it is forced to by the new technology: they exist in the rapidly changing technological environment.
Here’s how their chief visionary defines it: Steve Hilton, who has been hanging out on the Google campus in Silicon Valley for most of the past year, talks of being in the “post-bureaucratic age”. The pre-bureaucratic age is the time before mass communications, when central government was extremely limited in its powers: information took days or weeks to travel, so decisions naturally were made much more locally. Everything was smaller, done at a micro level.
Then came the telegraph, and it radically changed how society interacted. Information traveled quickly, but it travelled in limited directions: to the centre, and from the centre, creating overwhelming power for big government. Communication was fast and ubiquitous, but it had a high cost, so there were a few big players - media barons, for example, and grand bureaucrats.
Then came the Internet, and communication was virtually free, and in all directions. The dynamic radically shifted, though its effect on government is only now being seen. In the ‘post-bureaucartic age’ centralised government loses its overpowering control.
For an earlier generation, that loss of control was a threat. We’ve heard a lot about the ‘control freaks’ of Downing Street, and one thinks of the New Labour quartet of Brown, Blair, Campbell and Mandelson. Remember Blair’s line: “New Labour is nothing less than the political arm of the British people as a whole.” Such phrases are unimaginable in Cameron’s mouth. They have the sound of an age that remembers the old Kremlin. The founders of New Labour were the last giants of that mode, and now they feel the pain of that legacy.
I have no way of knowing whether Cameron and his team would like the old-style bureaucratic power or not, but they know full well they can’t have it, and that realisation changes the way they will do government. They will make it easier for people to participate at every level; from a business angle, it’s important to understand for example that anyone will be able to bid for any contract, and that spending will be much more transparent as government information becomes available even to mobile apps. Meetings will be published. Relationships between government and business will be open to mash-ups, clearly defined and easily defensible.
Not only in the open, but perception will be interconnected: not face-to-face but crowd-to-crowd. Politicians will see issues through the eyes of the voters as never before, simply because it will be unavoidable. They will feel their politics through the web. The books that have influenced the Cameroons are The Tipping Point, Blink, Wikinomics, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Long Tail, Nudge, and all that. The channels of communication and therefore the influences on behaviour have utterly changed, and the implications are only just starting to be worked through.