Category Archives: Politics

Critiquing design in government decision-making

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Thanks to @MalmbergL for the snap!

This blog is an adaptation of a presentation delivered at ServDes 2016 at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, reporting on early findings from my PhD research. The full paper is available as part of the conference proceedings. Part I of this blog sets out some of the questions and concerns framing my research. Part II reports on findings from a pilot study where I am attempting to start to tackle these questions.

Design is being used more and more – and more strategically – within government. The design community (the bits that are aware of it at least) tend to regard this as something of a win. But with all the optimism I think we’re missing some criticality. If we assume that design turning its attention to social and public challenges is on the whole a good thing, the only sensible questions to ask are ‘how can we do it better?’ and ‘how can we do it more?’ If for a second we suspend any normative judgment about design – it allows us to ask a different set of questions. For my part, I’m aware that, although current ways of ‘doing’ government are admittedly far from perfect, policy and politics is difficult, messy, ambiguous stuff – and this is new territory to design. So if we are going to be actors in this world – how do we do this in a way that is not wide-eyed and naïve? But sensitive to the histories, knowledge and practices of democracy and politics.

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Part I: asking questions of ourselves

First, how can we make sense of what we’re doing in democratic and political terms?

We tend to think of human-centred design as inherently democratising, in theory, but that comes from applying it in a particular (usually highly localised) context. There are far more mainstream ideas about how to enact democracy on a larger scale. However imperfect in reality, there is an agreed theory of democracy in which power and accountability flow in certain ways. By inserting design into the relationship between the machinery of government and the public, what are we changing about those flows of power?

  • Are we bypassing politics somehow – shouldn’t we be involving politicians in the conversation? Do we risk making promises to citizens that can’t be kept, if we don’t?
  • To what extent are ‘users’ empowered, or merely used? Are we mobilising user insight to deliver something that will benefit them, or to understand where we can take services away without causing too much of a fuss?
  • What’s more democratic anyway – holding an election, or doing some really thorough ethnographic studies?

And what happens when there are finite resources, and disagreement about their allocation is inevitable? Can we design our way out of everything, or is there a still an important role for opposition and conflict – for agonism?

Slide3Second, following on the heels of ‘behavioural insights’, ‘big data’ and other recent additions to the public administration toolbox, design techniques are opening up new strategies and options to government – beyond regulation and heavy-handed intervention – furthering the capabilities of a certain kind of ‘soft paternalism’. Knowing this, is it possible to work within the system and maintain some criticality?

  • Whose ends is design being exploited for?
  • What are we bringing into the reach of government? Why do we think they might be interested in making use of design?
  • Who is defining the target group as a group – what kind of politics are embedded in the concept of – for example – ‘troubled families’?
  • How are we conceptualising the public? As customers? Citizens? Users? Patients? People? And what difference does that make to the methods we deploy?
  • How far are we thinking about the ethical implications of our ideas, alongside their efficacy?

Difficult questions, but ones I think any practitioner (design or otherwise) in this space should hold in mind.

Part II: making sense of practices

Over the last year I’ve tried to start to understand what’s happening when design intervenes in the acts of policymaking, by interviewing lots of civil servants about their interactions with Policy Lab and design methods. (Policy Lab is a team in the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, that is actively trying to innovate policymaking practices by working with departmental teams and introducing new practice from different fields, a great deal from design). Our conversations have ranged over multiple projects, however the majority were quite ‘social’, in as much as they were actively trying to change people’s conduct in different ways – so very rich territory for thinking about some of these questions.

Slide6What came out of those interviews was – as well as some opinions about design – a rich picture of current institutional norms, culture and practices.

A practice lens is useful here, partly because there aren’t clear distinctions between designers and non-designers in this kind of work. But also because I think in order to make a contribution we first have to understand – to see what’s precious in the accumulated wisdom about how to manage politics in reality, and what’s useful about designerly ways of proposing change.

The civil service in Westminster has some long-established ways of doing things, and these don’t come from nowhere. Whilst some of them may feel a bit archaic, many of them embody the very issues of accountability, flows of power, democracy, ethical action, etc that I have set out above. They come from a particular environment and set of conditions, which in turn derives from centuries of working how to peaceably run the country.

The dynamic and power balance between the machinery of government (the civil service) and the people behind the wheel (the political party in office) is not straightforward. Civil servants ‘serve’ two masters – their political bosses, and the public. There are all sorts of ways that the machinery of government can speed up or slow down change. This is often seen by politicians as simply being obstructive – but from the perspective of citizens it’s about ensuring some sense of continuity and stability across successive administrations.

There is a tendency to characterise policy as being about rationality and politics as about ideology – but in reality it’s all politics. It’s all about negotiation. And there are innumerable policymaking practices that embody the need to manage relationships when working between ministers/ Parliament and the civil service – and some people become very good at this. Rather than anything so clear as a set of rules, it’s more like a carefully choreographed scene constantly being played out – and those who are artful can make small innovations within the form. It’s this artform that design practices are engaging with.

Slide7So what happens when we introduce design practices? My interviews gave me some insight into where the points of friction are – which also highlights I think where some of the opportunities are.

The first big clash is around the different epistemologies that underpin design, and policy. What constitutes knowledge, and evidence? How do we know we know something? And what constitutes knowing enough to proceed with a course of action? For policymakers, traditionally, knowledge is more of an absolute thing and is generated through, for example,

  • reviewing certain kinds of written evidence, mainly about what has happened in the past
  • educated people thinking really hard
  • asking an ‘expert’
  • quantitative data

This all means that often analysts and advisors in government know a lot about what is happening, but they know less about why – and they aren’t well-served to have new ideas about different kinds of solution. Design, by contrast, assumes that knowledge is always provisional, contextual and situated , and you can best know things through

  • doing, or testing,
  • immersing yourself in an environment,
  • or asking a real person about their experience of something.

So consulting the citizen, for example, whilst an obvious strategy for designers is not at all obvious as a valid way of generating knowledge – to policymakers.

There’s a second distinction – about what knowledge is for, and what makes it useful. Designers are normally interested in knowledge and insight that helps us move forward to doing something that works. For policymakers, the usefulness of knowledge is framed by two things:

  • a constant awareness of what will be acceptable and interesting to politicians
  • the ‘robustness’ of the evidence in question

So design ethnography, for instance, is both intriguing and problematic for policymakers – they like the insights, but not all of them might play well politically, and it’s not robust enough to do anything with. The insights from 6 ethnographic interviews isn’t enough to move ahead with a policy that will affect thousands of people.

So: do we try and blend design and policy practices to generate all these different kinds of knowledge to keep everyone happy? Or do we try and shift policymaking culture to work with other ways of knowing (which might be more suited to acting in complex situations)? And this is a question for all of us because it really comes back to the political requirement to demonstrate certainty about a particular course of action.

95_BaileyThe second point of friction is about performance and personality.

In order for senior civil servants to perform their key task of handling situations, and manoeuvring in order to strategically position the civil service in relation to politicians, there are certain accepted ways of appearing to be competent. Design seems to be challenging to many of these, primarily because of the need in design to admit that you don’t know, and perhaps dwell in ambiguity for a while. It’s very difficult for policymakers to admit to politicians, and for politicians to admit to the public, that they don’t know the answer. Which limits the amount of reflection and exploration it’s possible to do. Quashing ambiguity and providing certainty is usually privileged over taking time to find an appropriate solution to a problem.

And this trickles down into the ways people behave and conduct themselves – even the ways they have conversations. I think this is changing in other bits of government – but the policymaking culture in Whitehall is hierarchical, and competitive, and privileges people who are clever in certain ways. You might say it’s a culture dominated by the ideal of ‘rational man’. More feminine, collaborative, self-effacing modes – which is often what we see in social design – are less likely lead to promotion.

Collaborative design practices require a different way of performing and working as a group. So in fact there are benefits in design creating a space where policymakers are allowed to perform their roles in a different way. But getting the license to do this in the first place is hard.

And in relation to space, the third point is about material and aesthetic culture.

All organisations have an aesthetic, a set of ways the institution manifests itself to the senses. For the departments of government, and policymakers, the dominant aesthetic is closely tied to words and text, such as:

  • the circulation of pieces of paper with words written on them,
  • the act of sitting around in meetings with words on paper on the table,
  • the writing of ministerial submissions in a predefined format.

This practice is important again from an accountability perspective – there is literally a paper trail. And words are clearly felt to be reassuring evidence that proper analytical work has been done.

But aesthetic disruption has many advantages, not least in changing the way people relate to each other by changing the format of interactions, and the objects they interact in relation to. Visual ways of working and sharing ideas allow people to think about and understand things in a different way, and prompt a different set of thoughts. It gets people out of typical patterns of thinking.

However there is a question about how to create an audit trail of the decision making that happens in – for example – a collaborative workshop where people are talking their ideas through in relation to a model they’ve made out of cardboard and lego men. And of course eventually those ideas have to find their way into written form.

Slide8Ultimately it’s all underpinned by…

Unsurprisingly, a pervasive influence on practices is the framing of everything by the politics of the moment and place – political culture, priorities and narratives.

For example, in England at present all decisions are taken in the shadow of a very dominant austerity narrative – the bottom line is saving money and reducing the burden on the state in some way. Scottish politics has a markedly different tone – driven by the agenda around political and democratic renewal, and differentiating from England (crystallised in the ‘Scottish approach to government’). This puts a different spin on the ways that design practices are being mobilised.

And the structure of the political institution in question puts limits around what is possible: in a hierarchical organisation it’s difficult to get everyone involved in a collaborative design process. I can clearly see a far more democratic kind of platform where policy negotiations happen publicly through collaborative design methods and include politicians. But that would require a very different kind of institution.

Finally, whatever the political zeitgeist, for me it seems to be a moral imperative for anyone working in this context – and especially designers who might be introducing into government new ways of meddling in people’s lives – to think broadly and critically about the implications of policy-setting – to zoom out of the practices and practicalities and wonder a bit about the bigger picture.

Slide9So to conclude

What I’ve learned so far from my pilot study is that stewarding design practices through a political environment means developing a rich understanding of institutional culture – and maybe we should be aiming for a blended set of practices. And in relation to those bigger questions – here are some thoughts to end with:

  • Political culture, mood and narratives unavoidably set the parameters for the ethos of design practice
  • Bringing the machinery of government and the lives of people into closer contact should prompt critical reflection: is it purely instrumental, or empowering of people?
  • The language and practices of service, and design, derive from the market – perhaps we need a new concept of service, and design, in the context of democracy

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Whose utopia? Designing for a pluralist society

In June I spoke at a symposium at the ICA on design, fiction and social responsibility, called ‘Tomorrow Today’. This blog is adapted from the paper I presented. There is a write-up of the symposium in Disegno here.

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What role for design in shaping a better collective future?

A question those working in the design industry might ask at any moment in time, but perhaps particularly right now. In the UK we seem to be in a state of chronic political uncertainty: a surprising election result, a crumbling opposition, the rise of identity politics, a debate over the future of our relationship with Europe, and the ever-present possibility that the UK itself might fragment into smaller pieces. And all of this of course in the context of wider failures in the leadership and care of populations across the world.

We are also at a tipping point in the world of design, as the discipline – having argued for decades of its applicability beyond industrial systems – is starting to be taken seriously in other fields of application, including government policy, international development and corporate strategy, etc.[1] My own PhD is looking at the phenomenon of design going mainstream in government: new design practices are being improvised and tested all the time, in the design of websites, transactions and services, and in the making and testing of policy.

In infiltrating the world of government practice, design has found itself an even bigger platform for influence, which, of course, comes with responsibility. Clive Dilnot (Professor of Design Studies at Parsons in New York) has repeatedly argued of the need for design and designers to recognise that design in the ‘age of artifice’ necessarily involves an ethical dimension. He quotes Latour: “by expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers necessarily take up the mantle of morality as well.”[2] So in the context of government, in trying to use design to get to a better future, it behoves us to consider what ethos, what philosophy, what politics that design work embodies.

From self, to user, to collective.

Design has a rather long (and in many cases misguided) heritage of setting out ideal futures. Many more of these visions remained on paper than were realised in bricks and mortar. Nevertheless, the history of architecture and urban design is littered with the questionable experiments of men who thought they knew best. As a young architecture student I found many of these giants of the architectural canon hard to stomach. Take almost the entire output of Le Corbusier, for example. Projects such as the Ville Radieuse (image above), his plan for rationalising and improving Paris, are treated as icons of design history. Interesting manifestations of a moment in time, perhaps, but equally (to me) horrifying. There is something too constraining and prescriptive about this utopian vision, and others like it.

futurist image utopia 2

None of these ideal worlds – with their straight lines and abhorrence of mess – can possibly allow for the multiple different ways people want to live, for the pluralism inherent in any healthy society, and for the autonomy people need to feel over their environment in order to be happy. They are the visions of singular – often eccentric – individuals, that leave no room for the visions of others.

Admittedly we have now – in design – developed a different perspective, whereby we recognise that the people who are subjected to designs have a right to be taken into account in the act of designing. However, even if we have managed to be less egocentric, I think we’re still struggling with the challenge of designing for pluralism. We have become fixated on ‘the user’, with the individual and their behaviours.

usersThe terminology of user-centred design is becoming all pervasive in design culture, and not least in government. This is undoubtedly because it has the appeal of a sheen of logic to it: there is an optimal and ‘right’ design solution to be found if only we do our user research then follow some simple design steps (discovery, alpha, beta, live;[3] discover, define, develop, deliver[4]). Whilst the idea that public services might be arranged so as to be convenient and functional for the people they are meant to serve (rather than the institution delivering them), if the notion of user-centred design is unreflexively accepted as ‘good’, it means that certain questions are rarely asked, such as:

  • Which users are we talking about? What if their needs conflict?
  • Is it possible to isolate a single user from the world and practices they are embedded within and constituted by?
  • Are there functions other than use – and groups other than ‘users’ – that are relevant considerations for design?
  • Is it possible to design in a way that acknowledges plural perspectives, and functions beyond use?

The answer is, we very rarely design for a pluralist collective. We are unused to dealing with, or thinking about, ‘the social’, or ‘the political’. And this is something that designers (and policymakers) need to tackle if we want to get any better at making things better.

Conflict or consensus as a model for design

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Natalie Jeremijenko’s Feral Robotic Dogs.

It’s already happening in some small corners of design practice: those working in critical design[5], or adversarial design[6], have consciously embodied a particular political philosophy in their work. They produce design interventions that point up a particular political issue – an inequality, a paradigm that needs challenging, a potential dystopian future – and many have taken inspiration from the theory of ‘agonistic pluralism’.

Agonistic pluralism (as put forward by, for example, Chantal Mouffe [7]) is one answer to the question of whether it’s possible to make political decisions in a way that acknowledges and lives with difference and conflict, or whether the ideal goal of politics is to achieve consensus. It positions itself against the ‘deliberative democracy’ model, which proposes that democratic authority and legitimacy are grounded in public reasoning, and that it is possible to reach rational consensus through public debate. Mouffe, and others, have argued that this ideal debate scenario is unrealistic: “the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all on matters of common concern is a conceptual impossibility”. For my money, deliberative democracy bears so little resemblance to reality that its value as a model is questionable.

The alternative put forward by agonistic pluralism proposes that the aim of politics is the creation of some kind of unity, somehow, but within an inevitable context of conflict and diversity. This requires converting antagonism – conflict between enemies – to agonism – the opposition of worthy adversaries. All parties agree to the terms of debate, accept the fact that consensus is temporary, and understand political reasoning as the constant process of contesting, opposing, negotiating, and generally working stuff out. In contrast to deliberative democracy, it recognises unequal power relations as inevitable, and conflict as legitimate, and does not try to suppress it. It accepts the fact that bringing any public deliberation to a close entails making a decision that will exclude some possibilities and interests.

The advantage of taking this view, is that it demands a vibrant clash of political positions, as a necessary condition of a healthy democracy. So that rather than a political sphere that purports to appeal to all, and somehow appeals to no-one (sound familiar?), diverse forms of democratic participation and citizenship become available.

Design in government: glossing over the cracks, or surfacing dissensus?

Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.

Colleagues at Uscreates working with civil servants and Policy Lab on a policy challenge.

Adversarial design takes this philosophy and applies it in what are more or less acts of protest. But what is its relevance for how we use design in acts of governance? Do we think we are rationally proceeding to the most logical solution for a pre-determined set of users? Or might we use something like co-design as a practice of negotiation between different, maybe irreconcilable, perspectives? The former is likely to sound more immediately appealing to civil servants, judged as they are on their ability to traverse ambiguity and reach a decision quickly. It also fits more neatly with traditional linear models of policymaking.

However, anyone who has seen The Thick of It – let alone actually worked in government – will know that policymaking is anything but linear – or even, very often, evidence-based. Civil servants will acknowledge privately that what they do is highly political, is inflected by multiple competing drivers and interests of greater and lesser integrity, and progress requires clever manoeuvring. “Although policy is a big word that covers a lot of things, the centre ground is in making difficult – sometimes impossible – trade-offs between multiple competing aims, with limited resources, in a political context.”[8] The opaque world of Whitehall bureaucrats – the world in which design is making an entrance right now – is just as subject to the demands of agonism as the chamber of the House of Commons.

How we understand and deploy design in this context, then, and what we intend it to achieve, means making some decisions. Do we want to market design as providing solutions, presented as the logical end point of a rational process, and discussed in clear and definitive terms? Or might design (and in particular practices such as co-design) be treated as a form of negotiation between competing interests – between civil servants in different departments, or between government and publics – in the formation of policy ideas and decisions, and in the reconfiguring of actors around a particular problem?

I think we are starting to see design being used in both ways, in Westminster anyway. In the case of the latter, the language around these practices – and even the understanding of what is being done, is as yet much less definitively stated – it is self-consciously presented as emergent, and therefore it is vulnerable to being dismissed as ineffective. But it is also a way of doing design that can deal with the messiness of the world in which it is intervening. As such, it holds much greater potential for getting us, collectively, to a better future.

[1] https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-thinking-comes-of-age

[2] http://pdf.blucher.com.br/designproceedings/icdhs2014/0003.pdf

[3] https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/phases

[4] http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/design-methods-step-1-discover

[5] http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/home

[6] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/adversarial-design

[7] http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971349?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[8] From an interview with a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, undertaken as part of PhD research in May 2015

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User friendly elections


Does this need redesigning?

I seem to have heard a lot recently about how design can be used to increase democratic engagement. This is often a feature of election years – but the angst of this particular political moment seems to have upped the stakes. It came up at the last Design Culture Salon on citizenship and consumerism, at the ProtoPublics sprint workshop last week, and in the Design Commission’s recent essay collection, to name a few instances.  The idea is expressed in varying terms, and could mean anything from making political parties more approachable or creative, to enabling new kinds of democratic participation through digital means, or even devolving power to new political and democratic forms (top of Nicola Sturgeon’s to do list in Scotland apparently). What it often boils down to, though, is making the process of registering to vote, and voting itself, less awkward. There are indeed probably hundreds of ways we could use design to make engaging with the electoral system more user friendly. But should we?

Well of course on the face of it this sounds sensible. This year I was one of the millions who glided seamlessly through the new online registration process (thank you, GDS). But in the back of my mind a little voice is playing devil’s advocate. Is this one of those spaces where design should think before it treads – or at least be very self-conscious about which values it leaves at the door? While I here risk sounding like a privileged white person failing to appreciate the barriers to democratic engagement for other demographics, this gut feeling was corroborated this week by something I heard from two philosophers (also, admittedly, privileged white people), Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett, discussing Crawford’s new book.

‘The World Beyond Your Head’ revolves around a feature of the contemporary condition I’m sure we all recognise – the problems of constant distraction and fragmented attention. He proposes the idea of attention as a resource (collectively we share an ‘attentional commons’), which is in the 21st century being ‘aggressively appropriated by private interests’. Public spaces, spare moments in our lives, and spare corners of our screens are filling up with advertising, often targeted. This is pitched to us in the language of freedom – those offering us choice are only trying to increase our individual liberty. Possibly, but constant bombardment can also leave us feeling that we have little control. He argues that we should much more actively demand and protect our right ‘not to be addressed’, our right to silence, and space – prerequisites for the ability to think.

In his talk he then made a little conceptual leap to the development of skilled practice (harking back to his first craft-oriented book) as a mode of engaging with things meaningfully, of generating agency, creating moments of sustained attention, of joining the world (not fleeing it) by investing in something difficult. However for the purposes of this discussion I want to stick with the idea of how we choose to ‘spend’ our attention.

Both Sennett and Crawford referenced a theory of attention being commanded by ‘difficult’ things, and positioned ‘user friendliness’ as against cultivating attention. The language of ‘user friendly’ comes philosophically from an individualistic view of the world in which we all have unfettered choice, and are free agents whose attention has to be captured and monetised. Making something user friendly means removing all the barriers, reducing the required investment of time or thinking on the part of the individual, and making it as likely as possible for someone to do what it is you want them to do. The perma-culture of user friendly tells us that we don’t need to know how to engage skilfully with the world, as someone else will smooth out the creases and hand us the packaged version.

So perhaps we should resist the concept of ‘user friendly’ when it comes to politics, democracy – and voting. Democracy has been hard won, politics (by which I mean the constantly unfolding act of negotiating how we live together) is serious, complex and difficult, and citizenship is a privilege. Why should it all be made to seem unproblematic, or rightfully ours, or handed to us on a plate? And on what basis do we think making voting user-friendly would increase meaningful political engagement anyway? This proposition seems to be addressing the issue from the wrong direction. Instead of using design to smooth the edges of a single interaction between citizen and state, perhaps, if political apathy is a problem, we ought to be thinking about how people can become more skilled in the practice of citizenship. Rather than asking how we can just get people to vote, we should be asking rather how we generate sustained attentiveness to the question of being a citizen.

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Communication breakdown: how Westminster politics can repair its public image

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I’ve been thinking about this revolution à la Russell Brand business recently. He hasn’t historically been known for exercising excellent judgement, however in this case, somewhere buried in all the posturing, is a very valid point. The symptoms are clear: the British public are undoubtedly disengaging themselves from politics. Voter turnout is falling, as is membership of the main political parties. Facts which pose both a legitimacy and a solvency problem for British politics. On the other hand: the National Trust isn’t struggling for members: a fact frequently cited as evidence that Brits are still willing to engage in a wider public life and community. We’re just, seemingly, not that enamoured of politics.

Brand’s cure-all is revolution: a slightly impractical answer that doesn’t address the very real challenge of ensuring we have a legitimate way of getting a government. However, one only has to watch the news or read a paper or even probably ask a random person on the street to ascertain that he is indeed correct in his observation that most of the British public don’t care for politicians. His own diagnosis mainly revolves around the idea that politicians are all corrupt, self-serving ne’er-do-wells, in the pockets of big business and the city. This is a very compelling and easily-swallowed argument.

But my own experience of politicians – and I’ve worked with a few in recent years – doesn’t bear this out at all. Many of them are hard-working, decent, and public-spirited: so why isn’t this their popular image? Well, there are a few rotten apples, giving the rest a bad name. And some have just made silly mistakes. But I think the public would be less inclined to believe that all politicians are ‘on the take’ if they weren’t already so fed up with the political class in general. It is already a faltering relationship. And there is one particular feature which, as with all troubled relationships, I suspect might be causing the lion’s share of the problem: communication.

Communication involves two parties – at least – so let’s start by thinking about ourselves. The problems we’re having aren’t only to do with the kinds of people that become politicians. It’s us as well. We’ve changed. Brand may lament the lack of leaderliness in our leaders, but I’m not sure we want to be led in the same way any more. I recently visited Churchill’s house, Chartwell (National Trust member that I am), which is stuffed with memorabilia and records of his time in power. I reflected on the train home that not only was Churchill a very different kind of politician, but he was dealing with a different kind of public – one that didn’t know about (or turned a blind eye to) the fact that he was, for example, drunk most of the time.

Today, our expectations of communication have changed. We want to be informed, to be consulted. Social media has given us all a voice: we no longer expect to be mute subjects on the receiving end of a broadcast. And we have learnt from the experience of our consumer lives that we can expect to be put at the centre of things. To receive services that wrap around us, fit into our lives.

To return then to the accused party: I can’t think of any way that mainstream politics has meaningfully responded to any of these changes in the world (and MPs being on twitter doesn’t count). It hasn’t adapted.

For starters: it hasn’t updated its tone of voice. Ed Miliband’s conference speech was a case in point. Although the party faithful sitting behind him on camera were all nodding and clapping approvingly at his oratorical skills, I’m pretty sure that to most of the rest of us, he sounded like a parody of a sanctimonious sixth form debating captain. Every time he rhetorically paused and closed his eyes for emphasis I cringed. What an odd, archaic manner of speaking. And Mili-E is by no means the only guilty party.

Secondly, the political classes don’t seem to have cottoned on to the fact that most people are now quite sophisticated in their understanding of political communication, and can spot a dissimulating answer a mile off. Those old rhetorical tactics aren’t fooling anyone any more, so continuing to employ them encourages the fiction that all politicians are liars.

Thirdly, they collectively appear to be choosing to ignore the damage that party political bickering does to politics in general. For example, one may, as an innocent member of the public, switch on Prime Minister’s Questions expecting to hear intelligent and reasoned debate about how the country ought to be run: a great and serious matter. How disillusioned you would be to realise what you’ve actually stumbled upon is a window onto a rarefied members’ club where the main business seems to be jeering, name-calling and petty one-upmanship. Actually – internally – this is a system that sort of works because all the players know the rules. It’s more sophisticated than it seems. But to the outsider it looks like a highly disfunctional waste of taxpayers’ money.

Digging down into the reasons most people can’t identify with politicians reveals a significant communication breakdown. In what politicians say, and how they say it, they’re not, as a rule, connecting with The Public. But I don’t think it should be that hard to fix. There are actually a few relatively small changes which – if adopted – could have a big impact. In communications terms, politics needs to move into the 21st century with the rest of us, to move from an age of rhetoric (which it has worshipped and been steeped in for far too long) to an age of conversation – an art form which involves both listening carefully and speaking honestly, as yourself. Here are three suggestions for how this could be done:

1. Stop campaigning all the time (and collaborate).
No one listens when politicians use parliamentary questions – or any other platform – to big up their own track record, because no one believes anyone who is always the hero of their own story. They could be nudged into dropping this habit quite easily: the Speaker could instigate a new rule, a matter of parliamentary etiquette, that unless we’re very close to an election, campaigning and scoring party political points in the Chamber is considered an abuse of parliamentary time. They may disagree, by all means, but must do so constructively. To win back public confidence they must demonstrate that ultimately they’re all working together – collaborating – to solve the problems of the day. Opposing as a matter of principle is tedious and transparent.

2. Speak honestly.
This means responding to what people are actually saying, or asking, rather than waiting for them to finish speaking so you can say what you were always going to say anyway. It means admitting when you made a mistake or got something wrong. And it means being yourself. The popular politicians tend to be those who have a demonstrable personality – who don’t try to be an everyman.

In practice, this may require a relaxing of party lines: under the informal rules about how far one may deviate from the received wisdom without losing your party’s support, those who speak their minds don’t last too long. Or it may just mean we need a greater plurality of parties.

(This is also a great way of short-cutting bad behaviour by the press. Louise Mensch and Gloria de Piero are both interesting recent examples of MPs who defused public scandal by admitting, in a very no nonsense manner, to an incident in a former life that the press was attempting to batter them with.)

3. Be consultative
Allow people to participate in politics. Ask them what they think, and show that you have understood their answer – even if you disagree. Emailing constituents to canvass opinions before a vote is a great idea. It’s surprising how often people won’t mind a different outcome as long as they were asked their opinion as part of a democratic process.

All this is important because we absolutely need a healthy, happy, functioning democracy. Collaboration, which means good communication, is the only way we’ll get there.

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Talking Furniture: what Art Nouveau tells us about the French

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I’ve just spent the last few months in 1890s France (or at least in the library studying 1890s France, for the purposes of an MA). This is a period more glamorously known as the fin-de-siècle, a generic French term which has stuck to this particular ‘end of the century’, perhaps because the turn from the 19th to the 20th century saw such momentous change, and Paris was its artistic hub. The fin-de-siècle has a very particular allure in my opinion: close enough in time and technology to be very well-documented, but long enough ago to be a startlingly different place. Socially: modern and medieval in equal measure. And indisputably a time of grand visions the like of which we’ll never see again. It was also an interesting moment in the history of industrialisation.

I was reading about design – and the dominant movement at that time of art nouveau – and I was struck by the loaded ways in which objects were described by contemporary critics. People got really upset (or ecstatic) about the design of things as (seemingly) insignificant as chairs and wallpaper. Interior design was such a matter of national significance that a mainstream journalist was heard to say that one particular art nouveau room ‘reeked of the vicious Englishman, the morphine-addicted jewess, or the crafty Belgian.’ It’s hard to imagine anyone describing design in such xenophobically charged terms nowadays – or even caring that much.

Although it’s not mentioned in the above quote, actually the most problematic nation for France at this point was Germany. Not because of what came later, but because of what had just happened. Germany had wiped the floor with France both militarily and economically in the late nineteenth century, and their population was growing alarmingly fast, all of which came as a rather unpleasant surprise to France. And it led to all sorts of German-centred neuroses: around power, health, virility, and the question of how and with what France could still assert its superiority in some way.

I think the answer for the French was art nouveau. For hundreds of years they had been used to seeing themselves as global ‘tastemakers’, and the one asset they could still flaunt over Germany was their general cultural refinement. The art nouveau design movement flowered all over Europe, and its most sophisticated practitioners were probably actually in Belgium. But the country it really left its mark on was France: in Paris (think of those quintessentially Parisian metro stops). The identity of Paris is bound to the fin-de-siècle period – it’s what we all think of when we romanticise it – partly because art nouveau became the hook on which the French hung their national identity at a critical moment in their history: the solidification of the Third Republic. And if you look into French art nouveau this way, through the lens of a German-centred inferiority complex – you discover some quite striking things.

They were obsessed with the idea of French ‘grace, charm, and elegance’ as being innate national characteristics. This was partly in opposition to what they saw as being the hyper-masculine, heavy, Germanic style, and anything perceived as being ‘heavy’ in this period gets very short shrift from French critics. But they were also drawing here on the house style of Marie Antoinette, ‘Rococo’, which, for the French Republic (ironically), was their only available shorthand for power and glory. In order to assert their position as artistically superior they fall back on a time when they actually were: when the French court set the trends that the rest of the world followed.

Critics gloried in the refinement and femininity of French design (and for some odd linguistic reason the language is even more markedly feminine in French than in English). But there were downsides to the Rococo being a feminine style, especially in the context of the national embarrassments of military defeat and economic stagnation which led to a major crisis of masculinity. So they also made sure to comment on the ‘strength’ and ‘vigour’ of French art nouveau. This leads to some quite unusual design statements, where an ode to the grace, elegance and lightness of an armoire will be followed by the reassurance that ‘underneath these forms are muscles.’

They were preoccupied with health and fitness. This was partly a genuine reaction to the increasingly sedentary lives of the people of an industrialised nation: this is when we see the rise of the first bodybuilding magazines. But it was also quite common at the time for writers to use the body as a metaphor for the country. A critic called Hippolyte Taine claimed that their recent fall from power revealed that the French body was truly sick. So the worst criticism that connoisseurs can level at a designer is that of producing ‘unhealthy’ forms. They also liked to read their political ideals into their furniture, which they believed were qualities like ‘reason, logic, moderation’, qualities they definitely did not see in Germany.

It would be quite hard to draw a picture of a table embodying such qualities as health, vigour, femininity, reason or moderation: which shows you that these weren’t factual descriptions at all, but symbolic commentaries. And ones which revealed some important national anxieties.

Unfortunately for France, which put all its eggs in the artistic excellence/ luxury products market, the real industrial powerhouses of the twentieth century turned out to be those that focused on excelling at mass production. France, defensively, fell back on its ‘tastemaker’ laurels at exactly the moment it should have been innovating.

Whilst all this is interesting for being an unusual analysis to put on art nouveau, what is perhaps more valuable is to think about modern-day parallels. In the 1890s, the renewed focus on national production in France came at the same time as some particularly unsavoury outbreaks of nationalism proper (the Dreyfus affair and General Boulanger for those who know their French history!) This rings some bells in terms of the UK today. Recently we’ve seen increased support from government for UK manufacturing at the same time as the rising popularity of isolationist parties and this stupid question of ‘leaving’ the EU. You could see these things as different manifestations of the same spectrum of sentiment: patriotism at best, racism at worst. Now, as then, these nationalist wobbles are in the context of a period of rapid technological change. If the history of France and art nouveau should teach us anything, it is that this is not a time to batten down the hatches and rely on old formulas.

If you want to read a much longer discussion of this subject, you can download the essay I wrote for my MA here (the last one).

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Revolution by Design: my TEDxOxbridge talk

It’s no big secret that government can be dysfunctional. Entire TV series have been based around this premise. Working day in day out with both politicians and policymakers, it’s a norm I, too, am familiar with. And yet, the other half of my job, working with designers, has given me some unexpected insights into exactly why common governmental approaches to tackling problems rarely achieve their aims. It was this collection of observations that I tried to distil into my 15 minutes at TEDxOxbridge in June. And if this sparks any thoughts/ observations of your own, I’m all ears.

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Holiday Reading Notes: A World View from the Beach

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Last week, as well as one real life, slightly freckly one, I took two literary companions with me to the beach. Iris Murdoch (The Bell, since you ask, and thank you Jan Casey for the inspiration), and a certain Erik Larson. Murdoch’s company was, as expected, faultless, with just the right mix of humour, melancholy and human fallibility – and some provocative reflections on the psychology of catholics. I entirely agree with this reviewer. Larson was more of an unknown quantity, but, as it turned out, an intriguing one.

The book in question, ‘The Devil in the White City’ (and in this case many thanks to David Kester for the recommendation) is a very individual account of the ‘Columbian World Fair’ built by Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus setting foot on solid ground. America’s 400th birthday party, and an attempt to prove to the rest of the world it had come of age. It followed the example of previous such World Fairs/ Great Exhibitions/ ‘Expos’ in inviting contributions and displays from all nations, and foregrounding developments in science, art and technology. It made history for – among many other things – the invention of shedded wheat, and the Ferris wheel, Chicago’s answer to Paris’s scene-stealing Eiffel Tower unveiled at their own world fair of 1889. But its USP, as it were, hinted at by the name, the ‘White City’, was its sheer scale and distinctive architectural presence. All neo-classical, all whitewashed, it struck a remarkable contrast to neighbouring Chicago proper (dark, filthy, dangerous), and became a ground-breaking demonstration to Americans that their cities might be places of beauty as well as commerce.

The unique thing about Larson’s book is his approach to this subject: his is, in fact, a story of two men, told in parallel. A tale of two of history’s great creative minds and powerful personalities, bent on very different ends. One, the architect who envisioned and built the fair, and the other, the psychopath who carefully seduced and destroyed unworldly young women who came to Chicago to see this most awesome of 19th century spectacles.

Actually, if I had one criticism of the book, it is that the two narratives, apart from their simultaneity in place and time, seem really to bear scant relation to one another. Both are fascinating, but neither gains quite enough by being interwoven with the other to warrant the effort. However, I can understand the irresistible temptation of this project for the historian, this mission into the past to reconstruct – and compare – the doings of two compelling characters. And in fact the combination of architectural history, murder and inept 19th century policing made great beach book fodder. Highly recommended.

It is also essential reading for anyone with an interest in the curious phenomenon of world fairs. Larson does a great job of conveying the Jules Verne-esque ambition and theatricality, and the patchy distinction between the real, the exotic and the mystical that was a feature of Victorian thinking. It was a time when ambitions were rarely tempered by reality, because reality was changing so quickly: if men were now able to make light without a flame (electricity), and build babel-like towers out of steel, what other equally improbable things might turn out to be possible? It must have been an exciting time to be alive.

Having recently familiarised myself (for the purposes of essay-writing) with the Parisian Expos of 1889 and 1900, I have begun to suspect that the fact that we still have a globe-trotting merrigoround of ‘World Expos’ – the modern day descendants of these 19th century circuses – blinds us to the enormity of the spectacle they must once have been. Kicked onto the world stage by our very own Prince Albert in 1851, the world fair tradition provoked the technical advancement (including in warfare) which has eventually erased its own relevance.

With the immediacy of access to knowledge about the rest of the world that we now have, via screens if not through actual physical travel, the World Expo as an event has presumably lost at least part of its power and meaning. If we want to know what China is manufacturing or what a certain African tribe believes – it’s pretty easy to find out. But back then knowledge of the world was a privilege few could access. The fairs opened it up to the masses. Even longer ago than our own generations the magic of the fair must have started to wane. After the First World War, only 20 years after Paris was captivated by electric light shows for the first time, the world must already and suddenly have seemed a far less mystical and enticing place.

But can we recreate what the spectacle of the fair signified to Victorian eyes? Can we imagine the sheer gobsmacking amazement that must have accompanied the sight of – for example – entire Pygmy tribes in mock-up huts on the banks of the Seine, of a steel and glass palace enclosing giant oaks in Hyde Park, or of the rapid construction on the shores of Lake Michigan of a gleaming white city? I think the resonance of these affairs is still just within our grasp – but for how much longer? With all the recent WWI centennial activity, someone ought to bring this 19th century phenomenon into the popular spotlight. There are historians aplenty to do the talking heads bit. And, most wonderfully, Thomas Edison can supply all the footage.

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