Stephan Shakespeare is Co-Founder and Chief Innovations Officer of YouGov. He is also the owner of ConservativeHome and PoliticsHome. In this piece he writes about the enormous potential of David Cameron’s idea of a ‘post-bureaucratic age’.
Most of us live in an online world of constant updates, constant search, constant sharing. We post, we link, we surf. We feel as if we’re plugged in with everything all the time. In such a world, political power cannot be a Brownian control system. It will be post-bureaucratic – that is to say, open and shared, inherently encouraging participation. Parliament should be reformed to make interaction with the public as easy as being on facebook.
In a brilliant article calling for the obliteration of the professional political class, whose creation he largely blames on Labour, Charles Moore warns: “But no one should forget that, however genuine Mr Cameron’s desire for reform, his fundamental interest, once he becomes prime minister, will be that government should retain power over Parliament. He will want his Bills through quickly, his word, almost literally, to be law.” Here I disagree with Mr Moore: I think David Cameron may be genuinely, surprisingly, different. I don’t think he really wants that kind of executive power. Yes, as a campaigner for office, with an enemy to fight, he demands total control. But as a governor, my guess is he will actually be true to his naturally netty side, and allow genuine diversity. He certainly won’t want to micro-manage the passage of bills.
I once heard him in an interview speak of his strong interest in opinion polls, something rarely admitted by politicians. Obviously as a pollster I warmed to this, but it was his explanation that struck me as interesting: he said that, after all, it was the politician’s job to do what people wanted.
Politicians rarely say such things. They like to think of themselves as people of unusually profound understanding who will personally lead society to a better place. They imagine themselves intervening in the life of the nation with their special intellectual and moral authority. They fancy themselves as experts on policy. They shudder to think they might merely reflect the desires of the population. But David Cameron seems completely comfortable with the notion that he is just a part – obviously the prime part – of a process by which society comes to its own decisions. He doesn’t share the politician’s fear the mob.
The key concept for Cameron’s government will be ‘the post bueaucratic age’. The story goes like this: once upon a time, before modern communications, central government couldn’t control things, and so decision-making was fractured, local, small, organic. Then came the telegraph, and mass organisation was possible. We moved into the bureacratic age. It made us efficient, and we took giant steps forward. But with centralised administration and concentration of power, we lurched into new dangers, horribly exemplied by Gordon Brown’s statist fixations, which are hugely expensive and invariably fail even on their own terms.
The Internet forces us into the post-bureaucratic age: communications reach a new level, with all of us instantly and without cost connected to each other, and suddenly power is again fractured. The old monopolies disintegrate. Everyone is Prospero.
In this world, ‘policy’ cannot be what it once was. You cannot make a plan and impose it. It just won’t work. Can you really imagine an ‘internet policy’? It’s inherently laughable. And a ‘strategy’ may only last a few minutes, before some blogger upsets the apple-cart.
People moan that there’s no big idea for the future Cameron administration, but that’s only because today’s truly transformative idea is by its very nature a very little one: that tiny adjustments in connectivity lead to giant leaps in creativity. I know that sounds a bit hippy, but it’s actually very practical. For example, if you make government information mashable (that is, you use open-source systems and allow access to anyone’s widget), you have instantly created open government, and you harness the inventive energy distributed throughout communities. Not one big idea but muillions of small ones.
If you don’t believe in big effects from small causes, just look at the expenses row. One person sells to one newspaper one little disk about relatively small amounts of money. And now we have revolution: the Speaker has been dismissed (not, you notice, by Parliament, but by popular demand: Mr Martin would still be there if things had been left to most MPs), and we’re talking about wholesale reform of our political system. Safe seats become unsafe. MPs actually need to rethink their role and make themselves more useful to the public if they want to keep their jobs.
I suspect David Cameron will embrace this new mood. He has already begun, but he may go much further. In fact, the further he goes, the more the public will want him. What should he care about the sensitivities and all the little ambitions of his parliamentary crew? Those who are deselected will be powerless. Those who are newly selected will relish the opportunity to be different. And those who observe will applaud. It’s win-win-win.
We are being told to be very careful lest we destroy an ancient and wonderful institution, Parliament. The professional political class don’t get this: what Parliament currently offers, we don’t actually want. We’ve seen it and we don’t like it. And our lack of respect is not because we’re a brainless mob. Charles Moore is a very careful thinker. I would go so far as to call him a sage. And like a true sage, he tends to be surprisingly radical. Now, in this febrile context, he uses a word like “obliterate”.
We should not let this debate about the future of our parliament be conducted principally by MPs, as if it belongs to them. Ideas don’t come from politicians – generating ideas is not their responsibility and they don’t do it well. Ideas come haphazardly, from scientists and philosophers, artists and musicians, entrepreneurs and school-teachers, football managers (and even once in a while parliamentarians).
Nor are MPs very good at deliberating. They are far too self-obsessed to do that job creatively or dispassionately. Nor are they good at deciding things: no one with first-hand experience can believe that what happens in Parliament is really about making the best choices for the nation.
Nor are politicians less or more responsible, or visionary, or greedy, or hard-working, or mendacious than other people. We must get away from arguing for the merits or weaknesses of particular groups in society. The notion that doctors or nurses, MPs or bankers, teachers or trade unionists or business-people have a special vocation which in itself makes them different from any other group is just plain wrong.
We need men and women in the House of Common because we need people there that we can connect to. Take away the fantasy of their specialness, and reform becomes easier. I don’t believe in a simplistic ‘wisdom of crowds’, that we should make our decisions by some form of daily ‘pop idol’. But if we don’t have direct democracy, we should certainly have direct access and direct influence. We should be able to see everything, interact with everything, involve ourselves more easily. Parliament should be set up to encourage intrusion as much as possible. Innovation hardly ever comes from within an institution.
I’m not going to attempt specific proposals here, but anything which makes it harder for MPs to act as if they were in any way our superiors or guardians must be an advantage. The distinction between us and them should be completely permeable. And that is what Cameron has pledged himself to, with his embrace of the PBA (the post-bureaucratic age) and his commitment to open-source interactivity. His team is beginning to draw up a list of concrete steps. The convenience of secret spending, the tawdry world of lobbying, the destructive backroom deal-making, all will be banished.
And in this context, it’s worth saying something about how they have dealt with ConservativeHome. More people know the Conservative Party through these pages than through the official party site. From David Cameron down, the party spends a little of every day right here. Yet this site is entirely independent. It criticises and annoys. It campaigns for some of their ideas, and against others. Occasionally it even insults them. And yet they cooperate, they write here, they answer our questions, they are willing for the party to make this their hang-out. I think that tells us something about how they will behave.
People have said this is only possible while they are in opposition, that relationships will change when they’re in power. I don’t believe that. They know that politics, like everything else, is now a continuous multi-directional discussion with everyone. They are genuinely of the Internet age; they’ve grown up with Google. They don’t believe that government should be a gated community.
Government in the PBA democracy is unpolitical, unprivileged, open, fast, low-cost, prosocial, and inventive. Cameron, Osborne, Hilton and their teams are naturally suited to that world and have little desire to frame complex laws and drive them through with whips. This is the Internet generation coming to power, and wanting to share it out.