What do we need from government?



Update: I’ve developed an online survey, which you can find here, which enables you to rank the extent to which you think the current UK system of central government meets these needs. If you have five minutes to spare please click the link and complete your answers. The survey is anonymous but I will publish the results here.

Here’s my attempt at describing what we need from government. Have I got this right? What have I missed? What should be changed? I’ve limited the list to my top ten – are there other things you would substitute. (Update: I’ve now added a question to the poll which you can use to add any other suggestions or comments.)

To summarise the story so far (see previous posts):

  • this list is intended to be about what we want from government, regardless of which party is in power;
  • I’ve produced it as a precusor to thinking about whether the current system of government provides these things and, if not, how we might go about introducing changes;
  • I’m doing this because I think our system of government is no longer fit for purpose and is in urgent need of change.

Just to re-emphasise the point, this is not about government policies themselves which will, of course, vary from party to party, it’s about how policies are developed and implemented. 

What do we want from government?

Ensures that the wellbeing and safety of the population is
protected and enhanced:
government which does everything it can to enable
everyone to lead better lives and protect them from harm.


Is honest, open and straighforward: government which does what
it promised it would do to win our votes, and tells us the truth.


Thinks and acts for the long term as well as dealing
with immediate priorities: 
government which is able to think
beyond the next election and ensures that the interests and 
wellbeing of future generations are taken into account. 


Bases policies on evidence, sound reasoning and analysis: 
government which does not act on the basis of blind dogma or 
unproven theories but which acts rationally and shows us how and why
it has reached its conclusions. Government which does not change
things for the sake of doing so.. 


Engages the electorate: government which keeps people involved
and informed, shows them how they can influence what is done and
does not act in ways which will alienate voters. 

Implements fair and equitable policies: government which 
does not favour the interests of one group over another.

Is answerable and accountable to electors: government which
sees its first duty as being to the electorate rather than to 
lobbyists or funders.

Is able to do unpopular things: government which is able to develop
and implement policies which are in the best interests of the 
population and are in line with evidence and reasoningwithout being
de-railed by special interests.  

Is competent to govern: government which puts competent people in posititions of power and whose leaders do not second-guessor ignore those who have better understanding and knowledge.

Seeks out and punishes corruption: government which ensures that its members, and those who implement its policies, are as free from corruption as possible and which detects and punishes corrupt individuals.  

How to think about fixing government

I started this blog because I’m deeply concerned about the actions of our current coalition government. I was also very concerned about the actions of the last government.

I am dissolutioned with all the main political parties but I don’t think they are to blame for what’s going wrong. Instead, I suggest, we need to fix our currently broken system of government. I think the system is forcing parties to act in ways which aren’t in the best interests of the country as a whole or of voters. 

As I point out in the previous post, I know that fixing government is not a trivial undertaking, to say the least, but I hope that some useful ideas might come out of thinking about what might work better. Who knows, perhaps a party which faced up to some of the problems which run through our system and showed how it was going to fix them might actually win some votes.

Rather than just throw ideas around we need a way of structuring our thinking and my structure involves and I’m starting by identifying some ‘whats’. Things we want government to be like and do. For example, some ‘whats’ which occur to me are:

  • Thinking and acting long term, not only as far as the next election
  • Basing thinking on evidence and analysis, not ideology  
  • Being fair and being seen to be fair
  • Being honest and open, even when the truth hurts 

I can see already that some of these are potentially loaded but the devil is in the detail and I want to go on to identify some ‘hows’: ways of making some of these things happen.

Over to you. What do you want from government, regardless of which party is in power? 

All in the mind

Photo attribution below
Before we get on with the actual task completely re-designing our system of government* there’s an important point which I’d like to touch on.

I’ve suggested that we should structure our re-design by first clarifying what we want the government system to do then identifying the best ‘hows’ for those ‘whats’ taking account of any unavoidable constraints. 

One unavoidable constraint is the fact that the the system of government with which we are concerned will be operated by human beings rather than, say, intelligent machines (there aren’t any) or Vulcans (ditto).

Thanks to our big brains we humans have astonishing abilities. So far as we know at present, these abilities can’t be found elsewhere in the Universe. But our big brains aren’t entirely perfect and some of their characteristics have profound consquences for our system of government.
Two I would like to focus on are firstly the various cognitive biases to which we’re subject (there’s a long but interesting list of them here), and the underlying cause of many of them – the phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Secondly, I’d like to consider the impact of group dynamics on the system of government.

Cognitive dissonance is about one of the ways we filter information. We find it very difficult to hold two contradictory beliefs about the world in our minds so if, for example, we find out something which contradicts an existing belief we tend to ‘massage’ the information so that it fits or simply ignore it altogether. If you haven’t heard about Leon Festinger, who originally coined the term cognitive dissonance and his encounter with ‘Mrs Keech’ it’s well worth reading this summary of the book that Festinger and his colleagues published on the study.

On my second point, it’s often said that British politics are tribal in nature and I think this is almost literally so. The ability to live and work together in groups, and apply our collective big brains to life, the universe and everything confers a huge survival advantage on humans. But it brings some costs as well, particuarly when combined with cognitive dissonance. For example, in the wrong circumstances group dymamics + cognitive dissonance = genocide. Or, to take another example, they are both a big factor in this.

Having flagged up these topics I’ll finish now and return to the later to consider how, through re-designing the government system, we can limit the damage they can cause. 

* I am not sufficently deluded that I think that can – or even should – actually change every aspect of our system of government, But more on that, and what we might actually be able to change, later. For now, it’s worth noting that we can re-design the system, even if we can’t actually change it, and the thought-experiment involved in doing so should lead to some actual changes and ideas about ways of implementing them.

Photo: Brain t by Dierk Schaefer 

 Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike 2.0 license.


Form follows function


Photo attribution below

I suggested in my first post that the UK’s system of government is not fit for purpose. I think it no longer really does what it’s supposed to do. So, if I’m right, how do we change it?

Simply voting in another government won’t change the system, of course. If the people change but the system remains the same, nothing signfiicant has changed. 

As I pointed out in a comment on the first post, the usual means of introducing changes to the government system is to place one or more eminent and suitably experienced people in a room together – retired judges or Civil Sevice mandarins, for exmaple – and to ask them to use their great brains to consider the difficult questions and come up with an answer. But I think we need something a little more organised than this.

If we want to introduce genuine, systemic change – a series of changes to the system of government – we need to design those changes in an organised and coherent way. Any design activity involves:

  • agreeing a clear statement of what you want the thing you’re designing to do;
  • working out the best possible way of achieving the what – or in other words, some hows – given any known constraints.

As we’re dealing with a system here – by which I mean a set of interacting parts which work together to do something – it’s important that our ‘hows’ work together with one another as efficiently as possible.

I’m bothering to say all this partly because it’s essential to have a process if you’re going to change or design anything. But I also I think that one of the fundamental problems with our current system of government is that it really doesn’t do the job of ‘design’ very well. In fact, quite the opposite but I’ll return to that in another post. In the next post I want to look at some of the purposes – the whats – of the government system.  

Photo: Pavilion by R Buckminster Fuller by Mathew Burpee  Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike 2.0 license.


No way to run a country


Photo attribution below

Imagine you are planning to start a big company. You know that some sort of board or committee is needed to oversee its operations and make the big decisions. What should this group look like?

You have decided, after carefully considering all the options, to divide the board into two or three separate groups who completely disagree with one another about how the company should be run.

In fact, you specifically set things up so that there is no possibility of achieving consensus between the groups. Quite the opposite: each group knows that if it can dominate the others it will control the company and, therefore, be able to award itself the main positions of influence on the board. It can pay its sub-committee chairs much more than an ordinary committee member and they will all get a paid for staff, drivers and company houses in which to live. There are, in short, many reasons why one group would want to keep themselves in a position where they can dominate the others.

Pleased with this revolution in corporate governance, you decide you need to refine the means by which board members are appointed. Instead of basing this on their track record, competence and overall qualifications you decide on a much more radical approach: whether or not people think they come over well on television. Do they look good? Are they able to summon up a crushing sound-bite on the spur of the moment? Can they avoid questions and shake their heads convincingly if someone else says something they don’t agree with? These are the sort of people you are looking for.

I probably don’t need to go on. I am, of course, suggesting that the way we run our country is no longer – to use a phrase which is popular with politicians – ‘fit for purpose’. Our current system of government in the UK has – well, I was going to say ‘evolved’ but that’s not the right word at all – accreted over many years. 

From time-to-time people have decided that things are getting a little out of hand and that we need to take some power back from those to whom we give consent to govern us. Magna Carta (1215) was an early example, the Reform Act (or Great Reform Act) of 1832 and the Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928 also resulted in a redistribution of power.

I think we need another major reform now. The actions of the current coalition government in the UK are, it seems to me, completely out of line with any mandate given to either of the parties involved. But more generally I feel that political parties in government now see themselves as answerable to the (largely corporate) funders and the lobbyists they hire to ensure that political policy represents their – rather than our – interests. it seems to me that the votes of electors are merely a means to an end for politicians who have been ‘captured’ by a range of interest grups.

I want to use this blog to explore and discuss the kinds of reforms which might be helpful if my main confention – that our current system of government is in need of fundamental change – is correct. 

Although the actions of the current government have brought these issues home to me, this is not blog is not intended to be particularly ‘political’. As I say in my Twitter profile I am a ‘middle aged English male seeking a political party which bases policies on sceptical inquiry, rational analysis and evidence’. I am keen to work with others to develop ideas which apply these principles to reform. In my next post I want to look at why ‘belief’ appears to play such a big part in modern politics, particularly belief in different schools of economics. At some point I also want to look at how ideas like systems thinking could play a big part in what I see as a fundamental re-design of the way we allow ourselves to be governed. I also want to explore ways in which new ideas could be implemented, particularly given that our current party based system is probably part of the problem and may not be up to the challenge of doing so.

What do you think?


Photo: Police tug of war along Toronto waterfront by Bob Catnorth 

 Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike 2.0 license.