Just Say (I don’t) Know
(A slightly longer post than either usual or intended, but hopefully worth the few additional minutes)
It’s always a little uncomfortable when the chair announces ‘And now it’s time for some questions from the audience’. If you are thinking of asking a question, the discomfort embraces doubt (“Is my question sufficiently insightful that both the panel and the audience will be impressed? Or am I about to make an ass of myself?”), anxiety (“Have I put my hand up with the right mix of enthusiastic interest and disinterested aplomb? Or have I just made an ass of myself?”) and tension (“Should I aim to ask the first question? The last question? How can I ensure I don’t make an ass of myself?”).
Not asking a question is even worse. Will the question come instead from one of those green ink weirdos, whose painful contribution puts the panel in the position of having to utter some content-free nonsense so as to avoid pointing out the inanity of the question whilst still saying something so as not to appear rude? Or from one of those pontificators, keen not so much on the idea of a question but instead on the opinion that they’ve been gestating for months, intended to indicate that it is they, rather than the panellists, who should have been given the opportunity to address us today?
Or will it be a question that makes you wish bitterly you had asked your question, because they are so obviously an ingénue, and you would definitely have come across as the insightful inquisitor the evening so desperately needed, and now you feel like an ass for staying quiet; or will it be a question that makes you feel like a clumsy ignoramus, and whilst you are briefly relieved that you did not in fact reveal yourself as an ass, the more enduring sensation is the painful ache associated with the discovery that yes, in fact, you are an ass.
Fortunately, the wonderful Sir Richard Lambert cut through all such considerations a couple of weeks before Christmas when, at the Aldersgate Group’s launch of An Economy that Works, he suggested that prospects for the report achieving serious political traction in the coming months were highly limited because we were, let’s face it, in for a spirit-sapping, beyond-satirical election period of “total nuttiness”.
We laughed, of course. But it’s not funny. We should be choking: the mismatch between the challenges we face and the politics we have with which to meet them is simply breath-taking.
Curiously – or, perhaps not – a remark from one of the panellists just a few moments earlier may give us some clue as to what we are to make and do about this. (For, surely, someone somewhere has to do something.) Nigel Stansfield, Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer for Interface Inc (the sustainable carpet people, founded by Ray Andersen, author of the important ‘Mid Course Correction‘) had been explaining, with an engaging and impressive mix of wit and passion (“We don’t call them ‘human resources’, we call them ‘people’”) that businesses are facing a crisis of trust: and this crisis is acting as a powerful block on progress towards greater sustainability. Customers [I call them people], he explained, have so little confidence in business that they are unwilling to engage in the kind of long term relationships that are essential if the shift from products to services, or from linear to circular production, or from owning to leasing, is actually to take place.
Whether or not you believe that these steps represent ‘progress towards sustainability’, his proposition for how to tackle the problem was – to me at least – astonishing.
“We have to start telling the truth” he said. Businesses have to be open about what they’re doing, where they’re headed, why they do things the way they do, and so forth; and, slowly, people will start to trust them.
And this certainly feels right, and is consistent with what I’ve heard before from that most persuasive and expert voice on the matter of trust, Professor Richard Sennett. Actually, he is a little more precise, pointing out (if memory serves) that you cannot directly increase how much people trust you; rather, you must attend to your trustworthiness, and then it’s up to them. ‘Telling the truth’ is a very helpful component of trustworthiness – but mysterious phenomena like ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ and ‘consistency’ are also in the mix.
That said, let’s just reflect for a moment on the fact that a senior executive of a major corporation in front of a live audience of 200 or so admitted that businesses have been lying. Systematically. Always.
Quite a thing to say, methinks.
It’s easy to respond to this by saying something like ‘Well, of course, we all know that already, the only interesting thing here is that someone said it in public’. And something similar could be said of politicians: we already thought they were a bunch of disreputable dissemblers, interested in nothing but their own careers and the acquisition of power for power’s sake, so events like the expenses scandal or ‘cash for access’ did no more than confirm our beliefs.
But in both cases I think this is to dismiss the possibility that something really has changed, that the present really is different from the past – that there really is a crisis – and thereby to run the risk of failing to act in order to prevent a really very ugly future indeed. And even if that’s not quite right, or even plain wrong, what harm could there be if we were to tackle the culture of distrust head-on through a regime of ‘radical open-ness’?
To answer that question, I found myself back in 2062:
“Walled/open – a great deal of London’s economic life currently happens behind walls. Corporate decision making is opaque: wealthy citizens immunise themselves from their ‘neighbours’ by living in gated communities; political processes are dominated by lobbyists and careerists conversing in inaccessible settings. A London of 2062 in which these barriers persist would probably function as a city, but it could not possibly be described as sustainable. A sustainable London would be one in which inclusion and participation was ordinary, in which openness and transparency were normal. In this more open London, social injustices, environmental harms and wealth inequalities would be more apparent to all, increasing both the demand for change, and the political will to act. Improved outcomes would emerge organically from the change in the underlying logic of social interaction and would not need to be ‘engineered’ through interventions from ‘the top’”
Which is by way of saying that the prevailing orthodoxy of ‘behind closed doors’ serves the interests of those who are currently wealthy and/or powerful; and it is they that would experience harm as a result of radical open-ness. We should therefore expect them to resist any proposed or imminent increase in obligatory open-ness ex ante; and to develop swerve and avoidance tactics ex post. And oh! Look! It’s already happening:
- ICT companies, whose products and services have done so much in recent years to facilitate the exposure of the previously hidden workings of corporations, and who seemed so keen to promote ‘open-ness’, turn out to be in the forefront of opaque financial management and tax avoidance.
- Media organisations – whose willingness to use the utterances of politicians in a highly selective manner is such a key feature of the unwillingness of politicians to speak openly – purport to be platforms for open public debate, yet act instead to foster a culture of shrill extremism that serves to deter engagement and thereby preserve their own privileged position of control.
- Government agencies and employees so terrified of the actual consequences of the wonderful Freedom of Information Act (consequences that might include, for example, the embarrassment that might come from publishing government-commissioned research that finds fault in government policy) that an entire culture of cloudy edit, foggy launches and unwritten guidance has come into being.
One of the most severe outcomes from the last of these is that, in an era when there is at least a nominal commitment to the use of evidence when developing public policy, the material upon which decision-makers (should) rely – the independent research reports and so forth – has been comprehensively and serially emasculated by the time it reaches them. How can they possibly know just how angry the people in the focus group were if it simply doesn’t say that in the report? How can they really know how little of the pilot scheme actually worked if the entire document is focused on the ‘positive outcomes’? The resistance to radical open-ness is not neutral: it is actively harmful. The grip, rather than opening, becomes tighter.
So let’s just imagine – since it’s (still, just about) a new year, and an election in the UK is, apparently, imminent – the following scenarios:
Interviewer: So, as the MP for South Somewhereville, can you tell us how many of your constituents will be experiencing lower wages next year as a result of higher immigration from eastern Europe?
MP: I’m afraid not. The interaction between labour supply, labour demand and wages is very complex, so we’ve commissioned specific academic research to explore this issue. Until they produce their results, anything I say would be simply a guess, and I’m sure my constituents would prefer me not simply to guess or to trot out the defensive language provided earlier by my Special Advisor.
Interviewer: So, as shadow minister for transport, how do you respond to the accusation from government that you have no policy on this issue?
MP: The accusation is completely accurate. This is a complex and delicate matter, and we believe that the right thing to do is think through all its dimensions very carefully. When we have taken proper time to work out what we think is best, we’ll let everyone know.
Interviewer: So there you go minister – Ms Smith has suggested that the policy of focusing on the under 25s is not only depriving older people of their share of resources, but is failing to address the underlying cause of the problem! What do you have to say to that?
Minister: Well I have to say that Ms Smith makes a very good point and I’d like to take it away and reflect further on our proposals.
Or (my favourite):
Interviewer: So, minister, does the European Commission’s statement this morning mean that house price inflation will be higher next year, increasing the risk of an early rate rise?
MP: I don’t know.
How often, in any domain of public life, have you heard someone say: I don’t know?
If you were to hear such a response, would you think:
What an ignorant fool! How unprofessional! What an ass! I shall never trust this fool again!
How refreshing to hear someone acknowledge that they don’t know something, rather than jabbering on about something different or simply trotting out whatever party HQ had told them to say this morning. What class! I shall pay this person a little more serious attention when next I hear them speak.
It’s as much our fault as theirs. We seem to demand of our ‘leaders’, those people we put on pedestals or platforms, that they have special insight, special powers. We want them to tell us. We want them to know. Please, Mr Big Man, you decide: I’ll whinge about it, but I’ll go along with it. But I definitely don’t want to take any responsibility…
Once, perhaps, that might have been ok. But not anymore. The world is too interconnected, too fast, too complex. Mere governments cannot control things. Neither can the corporations. The problems are wicked, which means the solutions are distributed; which means – which means you, and me, and everyone else has to take some responsibility. A sustainable future – by which I mean a sane and viable future – is one in which we don’t just share ‘things’; we have to share responsibility, too.
And as anyone who has ever tried sharing responsibility knows, it’s not easy; it depends, probably more than anything else, on trust. And trust, in turn, depends, probably more than anything else, on honesty and open-ness.
So here it is: a programme of radical open-ness has the potential to rejuvenate our sorely damaged political and economic management systems; such a programme, if implemented, would inherently begin to nurture a more genuinely sustainable society; and such a programme could start with little more than a smattering of politicians taking the risk to utter, as one trustworthy grown up to another – I just don’t know; what do you think?
I don’t know. What do you think?