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Janan Ganesh and Stephan Shakespeare: The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age

Today David Cameron will be addressing a conference to launch The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age. You can read more about the Network here and follow it on Twitter here. In this special Platform piece, Stephan Shakespeare and Janan Ganesh set out the Network's Agenda.

Why move beyond the bureaucratic age?

The past few decades may come to be seen as the testing to destruction of the centralised state. As the likes of Simon Jenkins have chronicled, power began to gather at the centre under the Thatcher government, and continued to do so under Labour. Much of this was well-intentioned: ministers were trying to push through economic reform against the bitterest resistance, or ensure that massive new public spending would lead to better services. But the Leviathan’s limitations are increasingly obvious:

The public services that citizens rely on (and pay for) are often unresponsive to their needs.

At the same time, the choice, openness and speed-of-access available in other areas has changed popular norms and expectations. People are less inclined to be grateful for whatever they’re given.

The fiscal crisis means there is no more money for public services. Improvements must come through reform, not added investment.

The anti-politics Zeitgeist, which was already discernable before last year’s expenses scandal, has diminished trust in the state. People are less willing than ever to defer to the judgement of politicians.

Individual responsibility and social capital have been crowded out by the expansion of the state.

The emergence of post-bureaucracy

Part of the answer to these problems lies in devolving power from central to local government, something all the major political parties are notionally keen to do. Britain, after all, is perhaps the most centralised polity in the democratic world. But a more profound change may be achieved by relinquishing various kinds of power – such as access to data or control over public money - from government at any level to individuals and communities. Such ideas have come to be known as post-bureaucratic.

In the pre-bureaucratic age, before the emergence of mass communications, power was held locally. The central state simply lacked the means to reach into distant communities. The invention of the telegraph helped to bring about the bureaucratic age, when power shifted to the centre. Government no longer merely fought wars and set strategic directions, but began to command and control broad aspects of daily life. The genesis of the post-bureaucratic age lies in another technological leap forward: the internet. Society has moved from no mass communications to centralised mass communications to decentralised mass communications. Citizens can access information once limited to a centralised political class, and enjoy a power to publish that was once confined to an equally centralised media.

However, the success of the PBA ultimately depends on the use of technology, not on technology itself. That is why the NPBA includes thinkers, entrepreneurs (of the social as well as commercial variety), journalists, campaigners and public-sector workers, as well as people with a technological expertise.

What PBA can do: More for less

Reviving social capital that has been crowded out by the state is perhaps the loftiest aim of post-bureaucracy. The bonds of trust and contact between people may grow if they collaborate to shape government, rather than just passively receive its services. For example, residents could get together to vote on exactly how public money is spent in their neighbourhood.

But the political reality of the moment is that any big idea must be judged ultimately by how it helps to ease the fiscal crisis. In the coming years, public services will only be improved through reform, not through extra investment. It is here that the PBA comes into its own.

Transparency by itself can eliminate waste. Last summer, Windsor and Maidenhead council began publishing real-time information on the internet about the energy consumption rates of some of their buildings. Local people could see how much energy was being used in the town hall or their nearest leisure centre. Energy bills in those buildings have since fallen by 15%.  The mere knowledge that they were being monitored was enough to get council workers to switch off unnecessary lighting and unused computers.

Transparency can also save money in less direct ways. Take procurement. At the moment, the government contracts with a handful of large companies to provide certain services. Small businesses, which may be more efficient, are locked out by the opacity of the tendering process. If, however, the full details of all government contracts were published online, entrepreneurs could examine them item-by-item to see whether they could undercut the established contractors. The potential for savings is enormous. If the government shaved just 5% from the cost of its procurement contracts, £7 billion would be saved every year. And few doubt that the savings are there to be made. Steria, a French company that contracts with government, says the operating margin it makes on its contracts with the British government is almost double that on its French contracts.

What PBA needs: Data, data, data

Post-bureaucratic success stories all comprise three chapters. First, data that was once withheld by the government is made available to all. Then, members of the public (including individuals, businesses and media organisations) seize upon it, sometimes adapting it to their own needs and using it to get actively involved in that particular area of government. Finally, the service in question is improved, either through innovative solutions provided by the newly informed citizens, or through better behaviour by the newly scrutinised public-sector workers. In short, information leads to participation, which leads to change.

The Parliamentary expenses scandal was, in a sense, a ‘beta’ version of this model. Data that had been assiduously guarded by the Commons authorities was finally released (albeit through a leak rather than a voluntary decision). Newspapers went through the thousands of pages of receipts and showcased the most egregious offences in presentable form. And the behaviour of MPs has, it is probably safe to assume, changed forever as a result, regardless of what new rules are adopted by the Commons. The mere fact of a watchful and angry public has ensured that much.

The foundation of all post-bureaucratic policies is, therefore, open data. Without it, the process cannot even get started. With it, not much more is required of the state. The NPBA is ultimately a campaign for see-through government.

The difference between data and information is critical. Data in its raw form can be ‘mashed’, ‘crunched’ and generally played around with by entrepreneurial citizens to produce useful online applications for other citizens. The release of official data by Kevin Rudd’s Australian government has led to lots of open-sourced applications, including crime maps and a website showing up-to-date information about faults in roads and other public infrastructure called “It’s Buggered, Mate”. In San Francisco – a locality hardly bereft of programming talent, admittedly – the release of official data sets has spawned applications offering directions based on real-time traffic information and a map that allows residents to check for drug offences that take place near schools. Closer to home, the likes of have turned data into applications such as fixmystreet and faxyourmp.

The lesson of all this creativity is that the government may not have to do much to foster post-bureaucracy beyond taking the strategic decision to release data. The resourcefulness of the public (or at least, motivated sections of the public) will take over. As some politicians and civil servants concede, it is often the state’s own interests to be open with its data. The government’s attempts to package and present information arouse suspicion, as the collapse of public trust in official statistics has shown. It also costs money and time. Above all, solutions to stubborn policy problems that are confounding politicians and civil servants can be ‘crowd-sourced’ from outside. ExpertLabs, an American non-profit, builds tools that allow government to tap into communities with specialist knowledge.

Indeed, these self-interested reasons may be why the campaign for open data enjoys a political tailwind, particularly strong in the English-speaking world. Barack Obama has signed an open-government directive. The governments of Australia and New Zealand have released lots of machine-readable official date. In Britain, the Labour government began publishing reams of data last year (and launched last month) and the Conservatives have pledged to go further, promising to release all government contracts worth over £25,000.

Still, the NPBA should work towards a more radical ‘right to know’ than currently exists at national level in any country.  Britain’s Freedom of Information Act has given ordinary people greater access to official information, but it remains a half-hearted and essentially bureaucratic stab at openness. Citizens must apply to see specific bits of information (not, it should be noted, the raw data from which it has been derived) and wait patiently for a response. There are few consequences future for public-sector bodies that prove uncooperative.

A truly post-bureaucratic alternative may be to publish online all raw data produced with taxpayers’ money, apart from that which impinges on national security, personal privacy and other sensitive areas. This could be enshrined in a Freedom of Data Act. Citizens would no longer have to make a request; they would own all that they have paid for, and could access it online. Withholding data would be an act of theft.

The purpose of the NPBA conference

The weakness of PBA is its newness. As yet, practical examples of post-bureaucratic policies are few, minor, and spread throughout the world. We know what stronger local government would look like. We cannot say the same of post-bureaucratic government. The purpose of this conference is, in part, to give greater definition to the fuzziness of PBA - to furnish what is currently a compelling philosophy with practical policies. Questions for the sessions to answer include:

What should be the relationship of citizens, government, and business?
What are examples of post-bureaucratic policies to improve public services?
How will PBA save money?
What are examples of post-bureaucratic policies to encourage civic and political engagement?
How can people be helped to use the new power they will be given? Is it a matter of ‘training’ citizens, or should government simply let go?
Exactly how will government data be made open to the public? What kind of new legislation, if any, will be needed?
Where should transparency not be introduced? For example, should the advice given to ministers by civil servants be made public?
Please see the programme below for the organisation of sessions, which are intended to move from broader themes to implementation.

What is this Network?

In the ideal stage of the Post-Bureaucratic Age there is no ‘inside government’ and ‘outside government’ – everyone helps to govern. In his opening presentation to the conference, Bill Eggers says that building and managing these networks should become a core competency of government. This may be the future of government: creating structures that make use of the talent, experience and effort in the population. But can government actually do this? Or does it happen some other way - from the bottom up?

We think we should be pushing for the most radical versions of the ideas (while also understanding the practical first-step applications). So rather than call for more publishing of government-owned data-sets, we say citizens already own all data produced by government and that keeping it inaccessible is a form of theft. Where some say the government should reach out to the people, we say the people should just walk in. We want windows opened and doors removed. See-through government, walk-in government.

Among us attending this first conference of the NPBA are many related networks – of citizens, government, academia, business, media, and politics. The NPBA will be a network of these networks, to support, critique, oppose, and cajole those who occupy the formal seats of government.


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