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Imagining a world better led, served and governed

Sensemaking / Imagining a world better led, served and governed

Aaron Maniam shares six ideas from the "untidy" brainstorms of Master of Public Policy students at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

By Aaron Maniam / 23 Feb 2015

A group of Master of Public Policy students at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, recently published a collection of essays asking what ‘A world better led, a world better served, a world better governed’ might look like around 2050. Below are selected excerpts from the book’s introduction, written by Singaporean Aaron Maniam.

We lived out a possible future in writing this book. The trends I explore here – polycentricity, networks, sensing, experiments, tradeoffs and tri-sector thinking – were part of the book’s DNA. Our brainstorming workshops, conceptualization and design discussions, and writing ‘jam’ sessions were untidy and part of a long-drawn process of coalition-building and collective meaning-making as the various members of our MPP class forged a common understanding of the project.  

Our focus was deliberately on imagining the details of the future we wanted to see, not just the future we thought was probable, plausible or possible. We thought that 2050 was a good date to explore, given that in around 35 years, we hope that at least some of us will occupy positions of leadership in our chosen fields. While there was a variety of ages represented in our class, we all represent a new generation of individuals interested in policy: restless, impatient with the world as it is, and eager to change it for the better.

1. Polycentric governance

One of the most important ideas in recent times is Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s concept of ‘polycentric governance’ – formally independent but interacting centres of decision-making at the global, national, regional and local levels – to manage the use of common-pool resources or ‘commons’. Such a multi-level approach to governance in various spheres, not just of the commons, will become increasingly important in the future.

2. Networks, not just hierarchies

Another big trend is the importance of networks, like the global Occupy movement, most recently active in Hong Kong. Such networks build on the idea of polycentricity: they involve interactions across and within multiple levels of governance. They do not replace hierarchy-based authority entirely, since public good, coordination and institutional memory can often emerge from central direction of some kind, but are useful reminders that the locus of governing power is now spread over a more variegated set of actors.

3. Governance as sensing, not just seeing

James C Scott’s idea of “seeing like a state” is astute, but incomplete. The essential concept is that state machineries, with macro-perspectives and access to a range of data sources, can discern larger systems, and across longer time frames, than can often self-interested and short-sighted individual citizens. This is true in several instances, but states do not always have such complete, perfect or stable information. In many instances and increasingly frequently, states have to grope in the dark, ‘sensing’ imperfectly rather than ‘seeing’ clearly, through policy probes and pilots that elicit data and feedback to refine future policy iterations.

4. Experiments, not just efficiency

The probes and pilots that help states to ‘sense’ well can thrive only under certain environmental conditions. In particular, they are best supported by a culture that values and encourages such experimentation – including an understanding that some probes and pilots will fail, even with the best intentions and resourcing, and that such failure is conducive to learning. Experiments can sometimes go deeply against the grain of governments’ instincts, which lean most frequently towards efficiency and resource optimization. They require ‘contingency capacity’ in a system, allowing for the non-optimisation of resources in the short-term, in exchange for more dynamic long-term gains.

5. Tensions, tradeoffs

T S Eliot observed that sometimes, “the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time”. The exploration of these essays unearthed not just new ideas, but also new perspectives on existing ideas. Key among these is that a world better led, served and governed is likely to continue to be characterized by deep, difficult policy tensions and tradeoffs. Tensions come with the territory of governance, and hence need to be managed rather than removed or even minimized.

6. Porous disciplines and tri-sector athletes

Another dimension of broad continuity, rather than change, is the multi-sectoral nature of governance. Multiple disciplines regularly come together in single policy issues, requiring multiple tools from philosophy, economics, science, political theory, and many other fields to tackle them. This links with the idea developed by management consultants Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas, that the world needs more “tri-sector athletes” who can bridge the public, private and citizen-led sectors.

Writing this, I was reminded repeatedly of Abraham Lincoln’s adage that the best way to predict your future is to create it. The book’s editorial team was very careful to clarify from the outset that we were not attempting to predict the future (always an exercise in futility!), but were normatively envisioning what we thought a better world would, and could, be.

The full effects of some of these ideas will only be seen in years to come; other trends may well peter out in the fullness of time. Many will involve heated debate and disagreement with groups who are threatened by how a world better led, served and governed might look. We hope that out of this messy process, we have produced some ideas, impressions and insights for you to pause and ponder. If nothing else, we hope that you will consider what, in your mind, ‘a world better governed’ would look. More thinking of this kind will hopefully be a first step to making that better world a reality.

Aaron Maniam has served in Singapore’s Foreign Service, Strategic Policy Office in the Prime Minister’s Office and Civil Service College. He is currently Director of the Industry Division at Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, overseeing policy on economic transformation, manufacturing, services and tourism. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Image credit: Kevin Dooley / Flickr 

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