Avoiding full and frank discussions. Can the civil service ship it?

Do we still value taking the time to write our findings succinctly and accurately? Current trends suggest you shouldn’t worry about this too much. You should just get an idea out there.

And there’s a lot to be said about this – posting an idea can be rewarding and it can a notion or a meme to evolve into something that is genuinely interesting/perfect/popular. But, is this always the outcome and, should things be left sometimes before you share them?  What happened to the notion of making something as good as it can possible be before you shared it?  Are there too many great pieces of analysis or writing, laboring in the bottom of the drawer or filing cabinet somewhere that means, it is just too dangerous not to share.  Everything we write is right, right?



At present, we tend to focus on output – keep sharing, keep generating.  The blog scene and the memesphere, means that the rapidity of spreading ideas leads people to rapid fire more ideas…this means we are growing constantly, we are flooding ourselves with pictures of cats, tweets and vlogs.  Text, when written, is generally becoming shorter and more rapid.  When we have an idea, we want it out there, just in the hope that it will be so compelling, so brilliant, it will be virulent.

The amount you produce, if not key, is certainly seen as important in social media and the big data world in general.  The number of comments, the number of followers, the number of likes – all these things determine popularity and these in turn convey impact or influence.  But do they mean quality?

Influencing, or achieving, quality generally takes time.  What I’ve learnt in drafting is that there are reasons why we often write sub-optimal products:

1. The writer is confused about what they’re trying to achieve.

2. The writer is lazy and not really thought about what they’re trying to achieve yet writes it anyway.

3. The writer is impatient – they can’t wait to get their product ‘out there’ so publishes what should have been a draft.

What does ‘shipping it’ mean for the civil service?

Getting ideas out there, perhaps with lower standards of quality makes organizations nervous.  When you have developed and maintained a reputation, how do you work at this pace?  Do you want work at the this pace?  The reality is, you probably can’t, nor do you want to.  Take for example, a function like the civil service, which in the UK has the following purpose:

The Civil Service helps the government of the day develop and implement its policies as effectively as possible.

And it does this, in a variety of different activities.  But, traditionally, it has undertaken one very important role in helping the government of the day and that is as serving as a secretariat.  In this function it serves to administrate and record everything that is discussed and determined in government and has developed accomplished processes for doing so.  For example, going back as far as 1942, Sir Edward Bridges (as Cabinet Secretary) described that the following instructions documenting Cabinet meetings and recording them in a format that was:

(a)  Brief

(b)  Self-contained

(c)   In the main, unpersonal

(d)  To the full extent discussion allows – decisive.

This kind of style was encouraged (and possibly is still encouraged) in the civil service.  The discipline of taking notes means that you’re supposed to produce outputs that aren’t overlong, windy or personal.  Such practices do convey a culture that safeguards and policies a degree of quality.  Traditionally ‘draftsmanship’ was valued as a skill; the ability to produce well-written, crisp, succinct prose still is much in demand.

But, in helping the government to function as ‘effectively of possible’ internal drafting takes on a certain style, both in terms of how its written, but also in what its saying.  The art of drafting internal reports can be a challenge and often requires a kind of pragmatic diplomacy that’s needed to move things forward.  This is something that secretariat function can do well. It holds and produces records and outputs.  The note takers are often the only way of determining what was actually agreed upon in a meeting.  This can even lead to a form of internal coding that means a full-on blazing argument is recorded in the official notes as a ‘full and frank discussion.’  In such circumstances the scribe, has a challenging task – they have to make sense of what happened for the official record, but also, perhaps protect their own skin by not actually writing what was said, but what was meant to have been said…

‘And so while the great ones depart to their dinner,

The secretary stays growing thinner and thinner,

Racking his brains to recall and report,

What he thinks that they think they ought to have thought.’

[Taken from Masters and Commanders by Andrew Roberts]

Such ‘Draftsmanship’ clearly encompasses many skills and values, but is it still prized by the civil service?  To still maintain such a ‘transformative function’ in the face of increasing demands to open up, is perhaps one of the biggest challenges the civil service faces in the future.  Can it maintain a stewardship role and ensure government records are kept honestly and disclosed openly yet smooth over situations where ‘full and frank’ debates have occurred to such an extent that there is no clear way to proceed?  Is it possible to be fully ‘open’ whilst it is working hard to overcome both personal and political frictions it has to address in order to keep the country functioning?

In the quest to be open, would it be a risk for an organisation that has been founded to help government function to publish or share early drafts or real accounts of meetings?  It probably would be.  Such an act could be seen as irresponsible, perhaps even dangerous and it would probably upset the smooth running of things.  In such a culture ‘shipping’ nascent ideas, or draft notions, just represents too much of a risk.  But will it always be so?

The Future is Open

There are signs that things are changing, the UK government is trying to open up and classification is being simplified.  With advances in big data, there are increasing initiatives to share public data, and the notion of what can be shared is improving.  Pioneering ideas like thinkl and the policy design lab are establishing places where large amounts of data can be shared and dialogues can be had in public.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, they are leading practices that encourage the release of data and trying to understand the implications such practices have for our present values.  By setting up such research spaces with large amounts of government data, such initiatives can show the utility and benefit of sharing information and enable policy ideas to be tested in public.

Such initiatives are crucial if they are to address the perceptions of a shadowy culture of ‘draftsmanship’ that is seen to haunt many systems of power.  Those who hold the pen, control the word, but is this changing?  Is policy making becoming increasingly ‘live’ and subject to the opinions of more and more people as it formed?  This is something we’re exploring through our work at Simplexity.  We’re looking forward to the debates such issues will have in the future as we try to understand what should and shouldn’t be shared.  Such debate will allow us to have real ‘full and frank’ discussions, as opposed to arguments behind closed doors.




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