Networks, smart government and the Overton window

By David Blake

A fundamental feature of 21st century society is the way in which networks shape and determine outcomes.  This implies a radical shift in the conduct of public policy.  It does not mean ‘no government’.  But it means ‘smart government’.

But the complex systems community needs to recognise what a huge change is required to make that possible.

Governments have certain advantages not available to the other actors in society. They have a monopoly of the use of legal force. They can within certain limits set the rules by which everyone else has to abide. But against these advantages they are subjected to limitations imposed by a variety of forces.

For example, they are largely prevented from retrospective legislation. The tax collection system sets down rules and then allows private sector players to find ways round them. Financial regulation is much the same. Contract negotiations are governed by rules to ensure fairness. And so on. There is something to be said for these restraints and they are deeply embedded.

Add to these questions of propriety the desire for private business to have what it calls ” a stable environment” by which it means laws that it knows in advance and government action based on clear rules. I have never been a fan of this as a principle, because if you can’t handle change and uncertainty I think you shouldn’t be in business. For example, it’s absurd that government is not allowed to take an opportunistic view on the nature and timing of the way it sells debt. IBM sells lots of debt when the market will bear it and very little debt when it won’t. It gives no forewarning of its plans. Government on the other hand volunteers lots of information.

Gordon Brown bought into this idea of transparency and passivity very strongly. The civil service is imbued with it and contains few people capable of doing anything different.

Consider how the restrictions on government limit it from doing things which it would otherwise do. An aircraft manufacturer planning a new model will look around for a launch customer., They seek a big airline which can place a substantial order and which is well respected in the industry. If Singapore airlines chooses Airbus with a Rolls-Royce engine this will influence other less well-respected airlines. It thus makes sense to offer Singapore special discounts.

Tesco opens shops where it thinks it will do well. It then charges what it can get away with in that shop. Most people are shocked when they find out that prices vary between different branches of Tesco, but they then have the choice of accepting it or going elsewhere. Government does not have the option of saying you can use another government.

Whatever, more flexible government and smarter government is more discretionary government.

This is an exceptionally interesting idea it’s going to be hard work getting it done. But here the concept of the Overton window I think is relevant. At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered to be politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too “extreme” or outside the mainstream to gain or keep public office.

Although network based policy and smart government are well outside the range of current discourse, having outliers who propose things which are too far outside mainstream to be considered for implementation can actually shift the window.

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