An interesting talk by Professor Hélène @Landemore at @TORCHOxford yesterday, exploring the possibility that some forms of artificial intelligence might assist democracy. I haven’t yet read her latest book, which is on Open Democracy.There are various …
#FollowingTheScience As politicians around the world struggle to contain and master the Covid-19 pandemic, the complex role of science in guiding decision and policy has been brought into view. Not only the potential tension between science and policy,…
#democracydisrupted Last Tuesday, @Demos organized a discussion on The Future of Political Campaigning (13 November 2018). The panelists included the Information Commissioner (@ElizabethDenham) and the CEO of the Electoral Commission (@ClaireERBassett)…
The TotalData™ value chain is about the flow from raw data to business decisions (including evidence-based policy decisions).
In this post, I want to talk about an interesting example of a flawed data-driven policy. The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is determined to reduce the number of international students visiting the UK. This conflicts with the advice she is getting from nearly everyone, including her own ministers.
As @Skapinker explains in the Financial Times, there are a number of mis-steps in this case.
- Distorted data collection. Mrs May’s policy is supported by raw data indicating the number of students that return to their country of origin. These are estimated measurements, based on daytime and evening surveys taken at UK airports. Therefore students travelling on late-night flights to such countries as China, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Singapore are systematically excluded from the data.
- Disputed data definition. Most British people do not regard international students as immigrants. But as May stubbornly repeated to a parliamentary committee in December 2016, she insists on using an international definition of migration, which includes any students that stay for more than 12 months.
- Conflating measurement with target. Mrs May told the committee that “the target figures are calculated from the overall migration figures, and students are in the overall migration figures because it is an international definition of migration”. But as Yvette Cooper pointed out “The figures are different from the target. … You choose what to target.”
- Refusal to correct baseline. Sometimes the easiest way to achieve a goal is to move the goalposts. Some people are quick to use this tactic, while others instinctively resist change. Mrs May is in the latter camp, and appears to regard any adjustment of the baseline as backsliding and morally suspect.
If you work with enterprise data, you may recognize these anti-patterns.
David Runciman, Do your homework (London Review of Books Vol. 39 No. 6, 16 March 2017)
Michael Skapinker, Theresa May’s clampdown on international students is a mystery (Financial Times, 15 March 2017)
International students and the net migration target: Should students be taken out? (Migration Observatory, 25 Jun 2015)
Oral evidence: The Prime Minister (House of Commons HC 833, 20 December 2016)
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In his 1967 book on Organizational Intelligence, Harold Wilensky praised President Roosevelt for maintaining a state of creative tension in the US administration. Wilensky reckoned that this enabled FDR to get a more accurate and rounded account of what was going on, and gave him some protection against the self-delusion of each department.
(In FDR’s time, of course, it was considered entirely normal for an administration to be staffed by a bunch of white men with similar education. And yet even they managed to achieve some diversity of perspective.)
Early reports of Donald Trump’s administration suggest an unconscious echo of the FDR style. Or perhaps a much earlier pattern.
At the center of it all has been a cast of characters jockeying for Trump’s ear, creating a struggle for power that has manifested in a mix of chaos, leaks and uncertainty. The Trump White House already bears more resemblance to the court of a Renaissance king than to most prior administrations as favorites come and go, counselors quarrel over favor and policy decisions are often made by whim or without consultation. (Guardian, 4 Feb 2017)
But it is difficult to see this as “creative tension” resulting in an “accurate and rounded” view.
“Trump thinks he’s invincible,” says Hemmings, who doubts whether his advisors will ever question or criticise him. “Usually leaders choose the people around them to keep them in check, and Trump needs people to temper his hotheadedness and aggression. Instead, he’s picked advisors who worship him.” (Independent, 2 Feb 2017)
Wilensky’s book also discusses the dangers of a doctrine of secrecy.
Secrets belong to a small assortment of individuals, and inevitably become hostage to private agendas. As Harold Wilensky wrote “The more secrecy, the smaller the intelligent audience, the less systematic the distribution and indexing of research, the greater the anonymity of authorship, and the more intolerant the attitude toward deviant views.” (Gladwell 2010)
And secrecy seems to a key element of the Trump-Bannon modus operandi.
“These executive orders were very rushed and drafted by a very tight-knit group of individuals who did not run it by the people who have to execute the policy. And because that’s the case, they probably didn’t think of or care about how this would be executed in the real world,” said another congressional source familiar with the situation. “No one was given a heads-up and no one had a chance to weigh in on it.” (Politico 30 Jan 2017)
But perhaps in reaction to the Bannonite doctrine of secrecy, there has been a flood of leaks from inside the administration. Chris Cillizza suggests two possible explanations – either these leaks are intended to influence Trump himself (because he doesn’t take anything seriously unless he hears it from his favourite media channels) or conversely they are intended as a kind of whistle-blowing.
Marx thought that history repeated itself. (Alarmingly, Trump’s Counselor Steve Bannon adheres to the same view.) So are we into tragedy or farce here?
Rachael Bade, Jake Sherman and Josh Dawsey, Hill staffers secretly worked on Trump’s immigration order (Politico, 30 Jan 2017)
Chris Cillizza, The leaks coming out of the Trump White House cast the president as a clueless child (Washington Post, 26 January 2017), The leaks coming out of the Trump White House right now are totally bananas (Washington Post, 2 Feb 2017)
Malcolm Gladwell, Pandora’s Briefcase (New Yorker, 10 May 2010)
Rachel Hosie, The deeper reason we should be worried Donald Trump hung up on Australia PM Malcolm Turnbull (Independent, 2 Feb 2017)
Linette Lopez, Steve Bannon’s obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome (Business Insider, 2 Feb 2017) HT @BryanAppleyard
Carmen Medina, What is your Stupification Point? (6 May 2010)
Joseph Rago, History Repeats as Farce, Then as 2016 (Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2016) paywall
Sabrina Siddiqui and Ben Jacobs, Trump’s courtiers bring chaotic and capricious style to White House (Guardian, 4 February 2017)
In his 1967 book on Organizational Intelligence, Harold Wilensky praised President Roosevelt for maintaining a state of creative tension in the US administration. Wilensky reckoned that this enabled FDR to get a more accurate and rounded account of …
Following on from that description of ‘further-futures’ enterprise-architecture, several folks have asked me for a real example of the kind of world that I see, as an outcome of ‘Really-Big-Picture Enterprise-Architecture‘ [RBPEA]. In other words, what would be the outcome…
@Cybersal @kirstymhall @UKParliament #Brexit #VoxPopuli
A radical Whig tract was published in 1709 under the title Vox Populi, Vox Dei. The following year, an extended version was published under the title The Judgment of whole Kingdoms and Nations. I want to use these two phrases as the starting point for my submission to the UK Parliament Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has launched an inquiry into the lessons that can be learned for future referendums.
The first thing I want to mention is the rushed timescale. The inquiry was announced on July 14th, with a deadline for submissions of September 5th. I shall argue that this rushed timescale is symptomatic of the referendum itself, in which people were asked to make a complex decision with inadequate information and analysis.
(For the sake of comparison, an inquiry on the future of public parks was announced on July 11th, with a deadline of September 30th. So we are given more time to analyse the physical swings and roundabouts of council-run playgrounds than the metaphorical swings and roundabouts of parliamentary sovereignty and media oversight.)
To be fair, most parliamentary inquiries only give you weeks rather than months to compose a submission. This effectively limits submissions to people who have already formed an opinion, and already have the evidence to support this opinion. In other words, experts.
But then most parliamentary inquiries are about issues that people have been concerned about for a much longer time: Bus Services, Employment Opportunities for Young People, Food Waste. There is an existing body of knowledge relating to each of these topics, and it is not unreasonable to ask people to base a submission on their existing knowledge.
In contrast, nobody knew precisely how this referendum was going to be mismanaged until it actually happened. Although many people (including some Brexiteers as well as many Remainiacs) predicted that it would end in tears, and can now say “we told you so”.
I can read you like a magazine … Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t warn you (Taylor Swift)
No doubt the Select Committee can expect to receive a number of submissions that fall under the heading of what the Dictionary of Business Bullshit calls “Pathologist’s Interest”.
But told-you-so is not a good starting point for a proper analysis, because it concentrates on confirming one’s previous expectations, rather than discovering new patterns. So the Select Committee might not get much well-grounded analysis. Partly because there isn’t time to do it properly, and partly because many of the potential “experts” are affiliated to UK universities, which are currently on summer vacation. Looks like the Select Committee is falling in line with Michael Gove’s idea that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”.
(“The Voice of Gove is the Voice of Government”. I wonder what that would look like in Latin?)
The official announcement sidesteps from “the lessons that can be learned” to “lessons learned”, which is not the same thing at all. The former suggests an open exploration, while the latter suggests merely rattling through a project postmortem for form’s sake. The timescale does not seem particularly conducive to the former. So is this apparent haste triggered by thoughts of a second referendum, or it is just intended to curtail criticism of Parliament for its earlier folly?
As I have argued elsewhere (including my book on Organizational Intelligence) complex sense-making and decision-making cannot go straight from the Instant of Seeing to the Moment of Concluding, but require what Lacan calls Time for Understanding. In this respect, the inquiry repeats one of the errors of the referendum itself.
The timescale and debating rules for the Brexit referendum were modelled on a General Election campaign. But a General Election has three important characteristics that were absent from Brexit. Firstly the electorate is generally familiar with the main parties: Labour and Conservative were around before any of us were born, and the Lib Dems also have long-established roots. Secondly, there is some rough notion of symmetry between the two main parties. Thirdly the parties make promises to which they will be held accountable in the event of victory. In other words, the General Election campaign can be compressed into a matter of weeks precisely because the rules of engagement are broadly understood, and there is very little new material for the electorate to process.
In comparison, as Kirsty Hall argues, the referendum for Scottish Independence was given a lengthy period of debate and analysis, because of the perceived complexity of the issues that needed to be considered. This would have been a much better model for the Brexit referendum.
Finally, let me return to the phrase “the judgement of whole kingdoms and nations”, which of course raises the prickly subject of sovereignty. Although we supposedly have a system of parliamentary sovereignty in this country, parliament occasionally permits the voice of the people to be heard. As the Latin phrase has it, The Voice of the People is the Voice of God; and as the Establishment has discovered, the People can be a vengeful God. Parliament is still learning to listen to this vengeful voice. But who will teach what these lessons mean, and in what timescale? Or will the Establishment just adopt a Brechtian solution?
Would it not be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?#Brechtsit
— Richard Veryard (@richardveryard) June 30, 2016
Update: Since I wrote this post, the Electoral Reform Society has published a critical report on the Brexit referendum, which makes the same unfavourable comparison with the Scottish Independence referendum that Kirsty made back in June. The Society has confirmed that it will be making a submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry.
Will Brett, Doing Referendums Differently (Electoral Reform Society, 1 September 2016)
Wikipedia: Vox Populi, Vox Dei
@Cybersal @kirstymhall @UKParliament #Brexit #VoxPopuli A radical Whig tract was published in 1709 under the title Vox Populi, Vox Dei. The following year, an extended version was published under the title The Judgment of whole Kingdoms and Nations. I …
According to Wikipedia, a party leader is the most powerful official within a political party. I think this statement is debatable. Party leaders in recent history have had varying degrees of power and influence over their own party members, let alone the wider political system.
Writing in The Atlantic during the election campaign, @jon_rauch expressed strong opposition to the conventional view of party leadership.
The very term party leaders has become an anachronism. … There no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon. …
This is not only a problem of leadership and individual agency, but also a question of the nature of the political party as a viable system with collective agency and intelligence. Rauch continues
The political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms.
The relationship between the politician and the party has always been problematic – consider Winston Churchill who changed party allegiance twice before becoming party leader. But the root cause of this problem is unclear.
Political parties are what things look like when you put politicians in charge.
— David Allen Green (@DavidAllenGreen) August 3, 2016
@DavidAllenGreen or they are machines for turning people into politicians
— Sean Owen-Moylan (@SeanOwenMoylan) August 3, 2016
Jonathan Rauch, How American Politics Went Insane (The Atlantic, July 2016)
Wikipedia: Party Leader (retrieved 4 Feb 2017)
According to Wikipedia, a party leader is the most powerful official within a political party. I think this statement is debatable. Party leaders in recent history have had varying degrees of power and influence over their own party members, let alone …
Before the 2015 election, the Labour party practised collective denial (“misplaced confidence”, “kidded themselves”), believing that “organization could compensate for uninspiring leadership”. Following the election, “a danger now is oversteering the other way”.
Denial and oscillation are two of the principal symptoms I have identified of Organizational Stupidity (May 2010).
Contrast this with the Conservative willingness to invest in ‘blue collar conservatism’. Behr attributes this initiative to George Osborne, one of whose political gifts “is the self-knowledge to identify gaps in his own experience and to plug them with astute appointments”. Cameron, he suggests, is much less intellectually curious than Osborne. And yet it is Cameron who carries through Osborne’s plan to appoint Robert Halfon in order to recalibrate the Conservative’s relationship with the working classes.
What reveals itself here is a form of intelligence and leadership that is collective rather than individual, a form of collaboration and teamwork that has not been strongly evident in the Labour Party recently.
Steve Richards goes further …
“During Cameron’s leadership the Conservatives have become more alive as a party, impressively animated by ideas and debate. Cameron appears to be an orthodox Tory but likes having daring thinkers around him, even if they do not last that long. … In recent years Conservative party conferences have been far livelier than Labour ones, which have been deadened by fearful control freakery.”
… and insists that “the next Labour leader must not be frightened by internal debate”.
One of the essential duties of leadership in any organization must be to boost the collective intelligence of the organization. Not just debate, but debate linked with action.
Patrick Wintour reports that there was plenty of (apparently) healthy argument in Labour’s inner circle.
“Meetings were quite discursive, because there were a large number of views in the room. … [Miliband] enjoyed that. He used the disagreement as a means to get his own way. It is a very interesting case study in power, in that he would not be described typically as a strong leader, but very consensual. The caricature of him is as weak, but internally he had great control.”
But that’s not enough.
“The team that Miliband had assembled around him consisted of highly intelligent individuals, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts – it was, according to many of those advisers, like a court in which opposing voices cancelled one another out.”
Furthermore, an important requirement for organizational intelligence is that it is just not enough to have an inner circle of bright and well-educated ‘spads’, and to appoint either the cleverest or the most photogenic of them as “leader”. Perhaps the Labour inner circle deeply understood the political situation facing the party, but they neglected to communicate (forgot to mention) this insight to others. The vanguard is not the party. Any party that aspires to be a movement rather than a machine must distribute its intelligence to the grass roots, and thence to the population as a whole.
Exercise for the reader: count the ironies in the above paragraph.
Finally, intelligent organizations have a flexible approach to learning from the past. @freedland argues that Miliband was single-minded about the future, and refused to tackle the prevailing narrative about the Labour government’s role in the 2008 economic crisis.
“The management gurus and political consultants may tell us always to face forward, never to look over our shoulder, to focus only on the future. But sometimes it cannot be done. In politics as in life, the past lingers.”
Rafael Behr, The age of machine politics is over. But still it thrives in the Labour party (Guardian 4 June 2015)
Jonathan Freedland, ‘Moving on’: the mantra that traps Labour in the past (Guardian 5 June 2015)
Tim Glencross, Attack of the clones: how spads took over British politics (Guardian 19 April 2015)
Brian Matthews, The Labour Party and the Need for Change: values, education and emotional literacy/intelligence (Forum, Volume 54 Number 1, 2012)
Steve Richards, Labour’s next leader should look to David Cameron, not Tony Blair (Guardian 1 June 2015)
Patrick Wintour, The undoing of Ed Miliband – and how Labour lost the election (Guardian 3 June 2015)
Chris York, The Rise Of The Spad: How Many Ministers Or Shadow Ministers Have Had Proper Jobs? (Huffington Post, 13 November 2013)
Updated 6 June 2015