They don’t call it Civil Service World for nothing.
Having some of the habits of a social butterfly and sometimes describing myself as the sort of person who would turn up to the opening of an envelope or a front door, I’ve bounced from bubble to bubble in a number of fields. The Westminster Bubble is one, but there are others – political social media is one, academia another, even the protest movements can be bubbles themselves. When it comes to dealing with the problems of society, those who are in these bubbles can often find themselves oblivious to what’s going on in the day-to-day lives of those that they claim they are trying to help.
I’ve been to a few Hansard Society events in recent times – the last few being at Portcullis House. Thus I’ve been getting a bit of a feel for what the Parliament Bubble is like (and how it is slightly different to the Civil Service Bubble). In the former there’s this eclectic mix of what look like ex-public schoolboys in suits so sharp you could cut a steak with them, very well groomed women in their 20s & 30s working for campaigning organisations, middle-aged women from the senior ranks of quangos or other large organisations and ageing male political warhorses who have seen many a battle over the years. Now, of course I’m stereotyping in a very big way, but the picture I’ve painted is a far cry from the picture at, say the job centre – where the results of the decisions, debates and the discussions in Westminster are played out.
This is not to say that the people within these bubbles are bad people – they’re not. As I’ve mentioned before my take is that most people who go into the world of politics, policy making and the wider public service do so for the most noble and altruistic of reasons. The problem as I found out early on when I moved to London is that all policy making is made on the basis of imperfect or incomplete information. The challenge for (civil service) policy advisers advising ministers is to ensure that they have enough of the relevant and essential information to enable them to make an informed decision. Bear in mind that briefing is called so for a reason – keep it short. Yet what makes sense in one bubble may not make sense in the wider world. Ministers on the whole have two levers that they can use to change stuff: Money and laws. We’ve seen over the years the limitations of using both – whether it’s money thrown at regeneration schemes or whether it’s an increasing succession of laws to deal with crime. It was the realisation of these limitations that led in part to the rise of ‘nudge’ theory – for which the jury is still out.
I would love to see the Westminster Bubble popped. I would love to see far greater efforts made to engage with people from outside ‘normal politics’ and enable them to take part in the debates, discussions and decisions that are made in Westminster. But that requires taking risks that few seem willing to take. For me it means holding events in places where ordinary people live, work and play, publicising them in places where they are likely to find out about them and continuing with the follow-up work after each event has finished. It’s easy and straight forward to hold these things in London. Find a friendly institution to host the event, a keynote speaker or three positively disposed to the agenda that is to be discussed and perhaps a sympathetic company to sponsor the refreshments or a drinks reception afterwards.
Going out of London, and in particular to the more economically deprived parts of the country involves far more effort, disruption and potentially costs for you – especially with travel. Yet every time an event is hosted in London, people from other parts of the country have to overcome all of these things. Is it any wonder that the only people from outside London who come to these events, let alone know that they even exist, are people who have some sort of pre-existing connection to the world of politics? Yet some of the most toughest scrutiny I faced when speaking at public events or when going out and about on behalf of my former department was from those very communities that seldom saw the face of a policy-type like myself. There were times where I thought: “I’d love to bring all of you to London to grill all the senior policy types in the world I inhabit!”
One of the things that we discussed last night at the Hansard Society event was the role of digital and social media. While there are huge opportunities in using digital and social media, two points that were made by a number of people were:
- Digital exclusion – i.e. people who do not have access to, cannot afford or who are not even aware of the opportunities of social media, is a huge barrier
- Some people have made the positive choice of not using computers – let alone digital or social media.
I take access to the internet and social media use for granted. Twitter is the last thing I check before I go to bed and the first thing I check when I wake up – having been known to retweet while lying horizontal still half asleep. (I’ve not posted over 50,000 tweets in less than 12 months for nothing!) Yes, it’s a bit of an addiction and yes, I need to tweet less – much less. But it keeps me in the loop of what’s going on in the various bubbles that I bounce too and from – whether it’s the protest movements, the goings on in Westminster, developments in social media world or the academia bubbles that regularly provide some gems of inspiration.
Given the goings on in the Eurozone and the ‘Occupy’ protest movement, staying inside the Westminster Bubble can feel like a safe place to be for many policy makers. The same point can be made about the conferences regularly put on by the established far left too. Rather than having to go out and face the general public in their communities and on their terms, it’s far more comfortable to try and develop solutions to society’s problems inside these bubbles. Perhaps people within the Occupy movement have recognised this and are reclaiming the depoliticised and privatised public spaces to bring back politics (in the broader sense) to the people.
For me, I have been uncomfortable with the Westminster Bubble ever since I became aware of its existence. Such is the scale of the problems that we are now facing that finding solutions to them for me means having to go beyond – far beyond the Westminster Bubble. Are the gatekeepers of that bubble up for that challenge?