Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve probably looked at more examples of government innovation than anyone else in the world.
That’s not an exaggeration: I’ve written more than a hundred weekly briefings on the subject for Apolitical and personally built up an archive of thousands of projects (many of which have been collected in our newsfeed on government innovation).
In that time, I’ve asked myself why some good ideas work when others don’t and why it is that some countries seem to be so much better at the business of governing than others.
Why is it that American girls are 10 times more likely to have HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, than Australian girls? Why are schools in Iceland or Israel so much worse at teaching maths than those in Singapore or Finland? And to take an example from less rich countries, why do tens of thousands more women die in childbirth in Nigeria than in Ethiopia or The Gambia?
The country that usually takes the hit when it comes to these comparisons is the US. On many indicators, from educational inequality to property rights and preventable deaths from communicable diseases, the US fares worse than countries with a similar amount of money per person. Perhaps the starkest example is road deaths: if the US was as good at providing safe roads as Denmark, around 22,000 fewer people would be killed there every year.
All governments have things they’re good and bad at providing, but it’s less like that in other fields. An Android phone can do pretty much everything an iPhone can do, for example, so why is government, the operating system for our societies, so different?
Why some good ideas make it – and others don’t
Obviously, some ideas are better than others but the best idea in the world can be wrecked by something completely unrelated – a recession, a scandal, an election. In the thousands of projects I’ve looked at what I’ve noticed is that success is usually due to the people involved.
When discussing solutions or fixes, there’s often a technocratic assumption that societies or government are just extraordinarily complex machines: make the right tweak, paste in the right code and you’re away. In reality, the opposite is true: good ideas can hang around for decades before they take root – if they take root at all. Bottle-deposit schemes, for example, have existed since at least 1970 and in Germany, 99% of plastic bottles are recycled as a result. Yet 39 US states (them again) don’t have a scheme and the UK has only now decided to test one out.
The solutions that policy-makers are looking for have often already been invented somewhere else (and Apolitical exists to bridge that gap), but an idea is just an ephemera without the right person to make it happen.
Who can turn ideas into facts?
In the course of building this archive, I’ve spoken to people with near-superhuman strength of will. Ruth Carnall drastically improved stroke care in London by consolidating dozens of sub-standard stroke units into eight excellent ones and, each year, around a hundred Londoners survive strokes as a result.
There was, of course, bitter resistance to closing hospitals or parts of hospitals and the fight took nine years from when Carnall’s team started planning to when they were vindicated by the results. Carnall was made a Dame and the doctor who did the necessary research, Ara Darzi, a Lord.
But nobody, not even Ruth Carnall, can get something done if the prevailing winds are set against them. I’ve noticed again and again that big breakthroughs and transformative changes often come when, for whatever reason, there is some momentum onto which innovators can latch.
For example, the proximate reason the UK has suddenly embraced a bottle deposit scheme is that national treasure David Attenborough highlighted plastic pollution in the wildly popular TV show Blue Planet II and, literally overnight, millions of Britons wanted to know what was being done about it.
Add to this the recent success of a charge on plastic bags and an idea ignored for half-a-century is on the front pages.
There are no superhumans
I think the best way to understand the relationship between a policy-maker and the prevailing conditions is to think of the relationship between a sea captain and the weather.
If the winds are right, even a mediocre captain can get safely into port; if the storms are too bad, even the most brilliant captain will be sunk. For this reason, the most crucial thing about getting a good idea to work is picking the right moment - or build enough backing so that you’re simply swept forward.
But between the extremes of inevitable success and inevitable failure, the more skilled the captain, the more likely it is to come off. As such, I wholeheartedly believe that the best way to make governments better is to help public servants to be better which means more support, more money, more time, more training and more trust.
Why are some governments better than others?
A crucial thing to note is that in the examples I gave at the beginning of some countries providing worse social outcomes than others despite similar amounts of money, I was referring to those countries’ GDP and not to their actual government spending.
In the much-maligned US, for example, the government spends less, as a percentage of GDP, than almost any other developed country.
In the OECD, the only countries that spend less are, in descending order: Australia, Lithuania, Russia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, South Korea, Ireland and Colombia. In the most recent available figures, in 2016, the US government spent 37.8% of GDP; in Finland, it was 56%, in France, 56.4%, in Denmark 53.6%.
Of course, there is a question about how efficiently the money is spent but these figures suggest that the first thing the US should do to improve education, public safety and crumbling infrastructure, is to raise taxes.
Secondly, I keep noticing that sea captains are better at steering their ships when they’re trusted. At Apolitical, we recently surveyed a few hundred public servants about what single thing most held them back and, with almost one voice, they said restrictive management. Bureaucracy is real and the main people it impedes are bureaucrats.
Governments’ obsession with systems rests on an unwillingness to trust the actions and decisions of individuals. The desire to account for everything, and to approve anything, chokes many a good idea in the cradle. When public servants are trusted, empowered to make decisions and properly supported, they’re better at their jobs, which makes government better at its jobs.
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The collapse in trust
There are good reasons for the well-known and recent collapse of trust in government. Across the developed world, governments have failed to deliver rising standards of living for large sections of their populations in the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, the US political system is almost defenceless against corporate interests, the Eurozone has locked many members into economic stagnation, and the usual scandals and failings just keep coming.
But this is a vicious circle in which declining trust makes government worse, which further undermines trust. The only way to substantially make our societies better places in which to live is to break out of that cycle and take a leap of faith with government.
Yes, some public servants are lazy, some are corrupt and many have developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome with regards to adhering to rules and systems. But if we don’t give them more help and encouragement, our societies will aimlessly drift around, at the mercy of forces beyond our control.