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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: We muddle better if we have sight of a broadly derived strategy

Beset by an increasing sense of confusion and crisis, the main actors in the Euro drama look dazed. People are wringing their hands and saying: "For heaven's sake sort it out", as if it were just a matter of manly application.

If we had a recognisable strategy on Europe, one could refer to it, maybe even follow it. But there is no strategy, and there hasn't been one in living memory. When there is no strategy, and a crisis hits, it's difficult to think clearly. Faced with only unpleasant options, one bounces around between influences, a sort of "Brownian motion" of opinions clashing randomly. It becomes all about emotions: blame and fear and a huge longing for comfort and peace, but without any sense of what to do.

Last week I asked: "Can a good strategy for government ever be developed by people currently involved in governing?" I suspect not. To be fair, there is at least one genuine strategy that I can point to in this government (and one is a big number in recent history): it concerns open government, freedom of data. Long before the election, the policy bods thought this one through, worked out what they wanted to do, and have quietly and effectively pushed it forward. But strategising is different once in government. In the very nature of things, most of the time, people in positions of (apparent) power are buffeted by events, not leading them.

It's easy to criticise from the outside. In fact I'd take the argument further: a genuinely considered, researched, strategically framed critique can in fact only come from outside. You need some distance to make sense of things. Research suggests that you are actually better able to make good predictions if you are not immersed in the field you are judging. Philip Tetlock's famous 20-year study of the predictions of experts, in which he analysed 82,361 forecasts ("Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It", Princeton University Press 2005) demonstrated that experts are no better than the proverbial dart-throwing monkeys at getting measurable outcomes right. In fact they're slightly worse than random. Tetlock found that their very proximity to their subject actually misled them.

And they underperformed non-experts, who apparently benefit from a greater range of experience in coming to their conclusions. Non-experts, one might argue, are not better because they are individually smarter or because, knowing less, they are more "intuitive" - it's just that aggregated, they combine broader and more independent information and process that information with less bias. Experts are likely to be misled by their very closeness to events and the social influence of other professionals.

I don't think that better judgment is achieved by opinion poll. There are many problems with that, which I intend to explore in coming articles here. Many would argue that political leadership is already hampered by fear of the public's frequently shifting emotional reactions. Simplistic reference to the "wisdom of crowds" is unhelpful. But I do think that national strategy needs to be developed by a broader process than now, structured to avoid the known distorting effects of insiderism and the pressure of merely tactical considerations.

The government has made real efforts in this direction by requiring departments to publish strategy documents defining measurable outcomes by which they can be judged. This, part of the "open government" commitment, needs to be developed further. The discredited process of consultation and critique is in need of a complete shake-up, so that we have a transparent way of agreeing what our long-term goals are, and our progress towards them. One of our more successful parliamentary institutions, the Select Committee, could be more proactive about including the public in its work. Most of politics will always be about muddling-through, but we muddle better if we all have some view of the greater purpose.


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