Where does the authority to make decisions in a government really lie? Is it with politicians, or do those who work in administrative posts long before and after Ministers or Secretaries of State have left wield more power than we think? Given Edward Snowden‘s recent revelations concerning the National Security Agency (NSA) in the USA and the impact of that story globally, this is more than an academic question. We talked to one of the UK’s most interesting thinkers in the sphere of democracy and participation to get his view.

Myself and others who set up this website are curious about what is undiscussable in government and political systems. I was lucky enough a while ago to be introduced to Anthony Zacharzewski of The Democratic Society, which is a membership organisation working on citizenship and participative government. Anthony has been a good friend and supporter of what we do, so when he agreed to talk to me about his experience of working in, for and with the Civil Service in the United Kingdom (for those outside the UK, the Civil Service is the administrative arm of Government), I was delighted.

Over much coffee, Anthony waxed lyrical about his experience as a civil servant, and what emerged was a picture of the decision making processes within political systems in the UK that have a bearing on what goes on in human systems, political or otherwise.

The illusion of executive power

When they start, civil servants are taught from early on that their role is “to do what Ministers tell you”. What Anthony noticed over time, and suggests is an undiscussable, is that:

“…Ministers don’t tell you to do most of the things that you do. The idea that ministerial responsibility is directing every action in a Department of maybe 5,000 staff is a fiction, but it’s kept as a useful fiction.”

How that fiction is maintained is possibly a function of the mythology around political power, and the easy narrative that the media needs in order to reduce political decision making into bite-sized chunks, something that Anthony concedes.

Decision-making or decision osmosis?

“The civil servant actually has much more decision making power over issues than ministers do, because individual civil servants will be able to take small decisions or shift things in one way or another without being directly accountable for what they do unless things go badly wrong. If the minister isn’t particularly interested in the policy area and the press isn’t particularly interested in the policy area, a lot of it is left to you.”

What struck me was this idea of the ‘useful fiction’: useful to whom and to what end? There is an inbuilt system tension. In reality, Ministers have:

“…laser like attention on maybe ten or fifteen areas over the eighteen months to two years they’ll typically spend in a post, whereas the rest of the Civil Service is… rolling on.”

If the goal of Ministers is to deliver against promises in the manifestos they have been elected against (let’s set aside the complication of personal ambition for a moment, without denying its existence), and the purpose of the Civil Service is to ‘make it happen’, then at a system level the differences in role and context – particularly across time – of Minister and Civil Servant are significant.

Anthony is painting a picture of hidden decision makers, in the context of policy making. And revealing some equally hidden contradictions.

“The first is that civil servants are, to my mind, too unwilling to come out and defend the policies that they are largely responsible for creating. So they’ll send a briefing note to the minister to defend a policy that the Minister is not particularly aware of or interested in, when actually the civil servant is the expert.”

They’re trying to brief someone who’s not an expert, who has never really paid any attention (because they have other priorities). I think that one big step forward would be to have a more mature understanding that sometimes it’s the officials who are responsible, not merely for executing the will of the omnipotent minister, but actually designing and implementing the schemes. And if we can open up some of that, then I think that will reduce the feeling amongst civil servants that it’s someone else’s job to explain the policy that they’re undertaking.

“There is a sense that some policies are made on the basis that people know they will never have to defend those views in public or in the political arena, because they’re civil servants, and they’re not political, but of course what they’re taking are political decisions. They’re decisions about the state and they’re decisions about the allocation of public resources. Part of it is a lack of understanding by the public about how the policy-making process happens, but there is also a sense of isolation, of impermeability to the outside world…”

All of this raises some interesting questions about the gap between reality and perception when it comes to political decision making, and the extent to which the contradiction Anthony highlights i.e. civil servants both being responsible for decisions that have a social and political impact yet, systemically, not being held publicly to account. It also left me, having reflected on the above, wondering how the above pattern contrasts with the helplessness and powerlessness that civil servants sometimes feel (anecdotally, I have heard a number of stories that suggest that pattern is rife, often depending on who the Minister in charge is).

Open-policy making

My conversation with Anthony moved on to the relationship between the patterns he described, and open policy-making, the purpose for Demsoc’s existence. For Anthony openness is crucial, in that it limits and reduces hidden decision-making, and increases democratic accountability, and that connects with the recent news stories about lobbying of politicians, both here and in the US (neither of which are new phenomena).

“If you let policy-making become something that’s done at a low level by people who are just policy people for that area, it disconnects very rapidly from front line services and from the reality of what people are living through. It’s framed by conversations with the same people, and attendance at the same sorts of meetings, with the same sorts of lobby groups.”

That is a striking and powerful observation on light of the NSA. Edward Snowden story, which broke after I met with Anthony. The extent to which the US government does or does not have a mandate for the collection of vast amounts of personal data via internet and telephone service providers, is a live issue. Another benefit, Anthony feels, of this opening up of policy making to public scrutiny, would be to increase the surfacing of undiscussables, as transparency increases. His hope is for:

“… a more informed debate about decisions taken… a media discussion that helps support those undiscussables become discussable by acknowledging that it’s not all about the decisions Ministers take.”

And he acknowledges that there are inherent risks in that, particularly:

“…if you open up in the wrong way then you open up to the loudest and richest voices ahead of the democratic voice.”

Conversely, it might limit the excesses of intrusion into our lives. There is clearly a tension here, and not an easily resolvable one.

So what does this all mean?…

In most (conventional) organisations, decisions about direction come from the top, and key decisions along the way flow upwards for ratification. In government, certainly in the UK, the political cycle means that executive level decision makers are in post for an indeterminate time, and come with motives and intentions that may have little or no relevance to how in reality an organisation translates policy into action.

In principle, and philosophically, I am in favour of transparency and honesty. And there is a particular challenge: the media. Increasing the visibility of civil servants to the glare of a media has the potential to create the conditions for a new wave of undiscussables as those who find themselves in the spotlight play safe and/or find new ways of shielding and protecting themselves. Equally, the polarities of secrecy (security) vs. transparency (freedom) are not easy to reconcile, especially when there is an inbuilt reticence on the part of Government to publish all data, thereby making the debate/conversation inherently one based on assumption and inference rather than data.

So the questions that I am left with, relative to decision making in organisations and how this connects with undiscussables, include:

  • What is the purpose of opening up how decisions are made?
  • What need is being met?
  • Who benefits and how?
  • What is fact, what is opinion, where is the data?
  • What will be the same and different?
  • What is the difference that will make a difference?