Three lords and a dragon fairy

Summary

Puffles meets “God” – and makes him smile!

No, not that one, the civil service one – Gus O’Donnell (who as you can imagine when he was Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service we called “GOD”). He now sits in the House of Lords as a cross-bencher. There were two other peers of the realm there too.

University policy institutes expand

Some of you may have noticed the link from Four professors and a dragon fairy – where I spoke at the University of Bristol’s Policy and Politics Conference. One of the key points from that conference was the predicted rise of academic public policy units based within universities. This lecture, hosted by Cambridge Public Policy had a number of themes that followed on quite nicely from it. While Cambridge has a big science and technology brand attached to it, it’s less well known in the world of public policy and politics. Oxford tends to be more well known in this field. I’m particularly interested in how the world of public policy develops in Cambridge because A) Cambridge is my home town (even though the university is anything but), and B) because public policy is one half of what I ‘do’ – though very much in a social media context that looks outwards to the general public rather than inwards within Whitehall.

Having successfully applied for a ticket, I was subsequently invited by Dr Miranda Gomperts to join a gathering over dinner and a discussion under Chatham House Rules – with Puffles restricted to three tweets max! So a ****Big Thank You***** to Miranda for the invitation. The conversation at the latter shone a light into some of the challenges and opportunities on evidence-based policy-making, my thoughts of which (but not other people’s comments due to the Rules) I’ll expand on later on.

Gathered around the table were some of the great and the good of Cambridge University’s academic community looking at a number of the issues raised in O’Donnell’s lecture – which was one of the best economics’ lectures I’ve been to. (Given that I’ve been to almost 5 years worth during my time in academia, that’s quite a compliment!) The headline points that O’Donnell made were live-tweeted by myself and others.

So, what did G’OD say?

I went along with Sam Smith to this lecture at a crowded stage in Peterhouse. The first thing that struck me was that the material seemed to be the things that O’Donnell the academic had wanted to really throw himself into but for the past 20 years had been prevented from doing so. It reminded me a little of Dr Tony Wright at the weekend at the University of London – just on a slightly different subject. Much of the talk was on behavioural economics. The difference someone like O’Donnell makes is A) he’s a damn good public speaker and B) he can put what can seem like dry academic theory and apply it to real world examples – whether backing up or shredding arguments for given policies.

There were a whole host of case studies that he referred to that had the audience – myself included – spellbound. In one sense it felt like ‘nudge theory’ yet on the other hand, it felt like something more. This is where at the dinner the issue of ethics came up – that issue also coming up on Puffles’ Twitter feed at the same time. One of the things noted about nudge theory is that in a number of cases it only works when people do not know they are being nudged. This is where things like ethics and philosophy come into contact with public policy. Is it ethical to carry out policies based on the principles of nudge theory without being open and honest with the general public about what is happening and why? Personally in this day and age, I have issues with the principle, even though there might be considerable financial savings as a result.

Any examples?

Tax and benefits. Do you send out forms simply requiring people to fill them in, or do you get people to sign the form at the top saying “What I am about to fill in here is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”  rather than having them sign it at the end? The studies O’Donnell pointed to in his lecture showed having people sign up front rather than at the end led to more accurate & more honest tax returns that also generated a greater level of revenue. People didn’t know they were having this done to them, but on a macro scale, the potential revenue difference can be hundreds of millions of pounds. But is it ethical?

There’s the issue with health. During my civil service days I’d send stuff in a brown envelope. OK , it would seldom be to a member of the public, but brown envelopes with plastic windows – or any envelope with a window – normally has bad news. (Or junk). Yet if it’s something that has say a personal appointment at a clinic that’ll improve their health, where does it end? Rather have a normal envelope, hand written with a stamp leads to a more positive effect in the cases O’Donnell presented – increasing the likelihood the envelope would be opened and the individual would act on it. But if the public are not aware of this switch, is it ethical?

There’s no right or wrong answer. Cases can be made for both sides. This is what makes policy-making so interesting. It’s what should also make politics interesting – which is why it’s so sad to see ‘politics’ being dragged through the mud in recent years. The police and crime commissioner elections today are symptomatic of that. Catastrophically low turnouts along with a number of people (myself included) spoiling their ballot papers is not good for democracy, but the responsibility in this case lies with the politicians that gave us such a flawed system for these elections. I refuse to legitimise such a flawed policy with a vote for any of the candidates. But I had to make my point in an active manner. Hence voting for Puffles instead.

How did you manage to get Gus to have a photo with Puffles?

Puffles with Dr Miranda Gomperts, Lord O’Donnell and Dr David Cleevely at Peterhouse College, Cambridge

Well…Miranda asked him.

Did everyone ‘get’ Puffles and social media?

Of course not! Not everyone does – nor should they! But the point I left the audience with stemmed from one of O’Donnell’s key points about breaking out of policy and academic silos. Issues are now cutting across professions, government departments and subject areas. Things are getting far more complicated.

My point was that social and digital media allows people to scrutinise and be scrutinised far beyond their academic or policy silos. One of the things O’Donnell touched on as far as scientists were concerned was the need for them to understand political demands and policy cycles. But this isn’t the only occasion where I’ve heard a speaker say that people from one profession need to understand another – and/or others. The brilliant Lucy Chambers at a talk Puffles was at earlier this year spoke of the need for journalists to understand data – and big data. There has been a push for civil servants to understand basic economics. Following recent events, I dare say that there is a need for social media users to understand that abstract theoretical concept called ‘the law’.

That was my challenge in conversation with a number of people that evening: How do you feel about being scrutinised by people far beyond your immediate academic community? I used a hypothetical Frances Coppola as an example. Frances qualified with an MBA before going onto work in banking in years gone by. Today, she’s a teacher, but still blogs on all things economics and banking. She’s not part of any organisation or academic institution. To all intents and purposes, Frances is a bit like me: A free spirit but with an understanding of how institutions within a given sector function. If you are in academia – or in a public policy role, how do you deal with people like Frances or myself? How in the world do you deal with someone who tweets through a creature such as Puffles? Do you dismiss us because we are not part of an institution or do you judge us by both our content and the people we engage with?

“Yeah…can’t remember the name of the guy, but he’s with Magic Dragon Puffles – told me to get in touch with you regarding complicated stuff!”

“They turn up with business cards, you turn up with a dragon. Who are they going to remember?” Said one delegate at an event I attended about six months ago. Now, dismiss the likes of Frances and myself by all means, but don’t be surprised if those people that choose to embrace social and digital media start gaining benefits from it that you do not. Puffles is a great connector – connecting both people and institutions in a manner unheard of a few years ago. I like putting people who have similar professional interests in touch with each other and letting them get on with stuff.

From both academic and policy perspectives, using digital and social media has the potential to increase the level of input and scrutiny. It also poses significant challenges for partisan think tanks too. It’s one thing to be criticised by what may feel like faceless academics. It’s quite another to be criticised by a former Cabinet Secretary – As O’Donnell did with the Tax Payers’ Alliance over its failure to make a big issue of tax avoidance. (Remember O’Donnell has a PhD in economics and is a former Treasury Permanent Secretary too). How will think tanks respond to the growing number of university-backed public policy units that will inevitably become more social-media-savvy and want to scrutinise their publications in detail?

And finally?

My challenge to such public policy institutes is to live-stream speeches over the internet. The remote audience for this talk was potentially huge, so it was a shame it wasn’t filmed or recorded. I made that point to O’Donnell and others, saying that there are huge potential audiences for such talks far beyond the normal policy and academic silos. We’ve just got to make things available to them.

This entry was posted in Cambridge, Data, science and statistics, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media. Bookmark the permalink.

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