“Central government is basically a publishing house.”

by Stephen Tall on February 17, 2014

Here’s a telling excerpt from Matthew Taylor’s – Tony Blair’s head of strategy, now chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) – blog-post on public service reform:

Observance of Chatham House rules requires me to protect the source of the following brilliant observations from an official currently seconded to the Cabinet Office.

‘Having never worked in Whitehall I spent a few weeks wondering around, going to meetings and watching people work. After a while I figured it out: Central government is basically a publishing house. It is full of people writing stuff, contracts, consultation papers, regulations. These things take ages to write. Because they are so long and complex they inevitably contain flaws that are only discovered when they are implemented.

‘Innovation for designers involves doing stuff and testing it on people, for policy makers it means writing stuff and selling it to people.

‘Policy makers and designers have a fundamentally different view of mistakes. Designers like mistakes because they provide useful information that can be used to adapt and improve the model. Policy makers hate mistakes because they are so hard to undo, so they tend to ignore or suppress information about failings.

His conclusion has lessons for all parties:

The real test will be this year’s party conferences and next year’s manifestos. In the run up to the election the Institute for Government’s prosaic observation should be put in neon lights above every party HQ: ‘Party leaders must also be careful not to allow their colleagues to develop strong positions on policy areas they hope to decentralise’