Making the global village a reality for policy

Written by Alex Starritt on 3 May 2017 in Feature

At a time of constrained resources for civil servants, learning from other governments’ mistakes and successes is one way to save time and money

Cycle deaths Sweden’s scheme saves lives, so why have we been slow on the uptake?

There’s a scene in The Thick of It when Hugh Abbot, the new minister for social affairs, is in his car going to a press conference with his special advisers when the policy he wants to announce is nixed from on high. Having gathered the national press, he needs to find something else to announce instead and asks his advisers for suggestions.

One says: “So you want something sexy and eye-catching and that is free and universally popular and instantly applicable and no one could possibly object to it.
Well, really, you should have said something before, because I’ve got a file about that f***ing thick of that back in the office.”

The ways excellent policies are discovered in real life are often not much better. Take the example of “Vision Zero”, a set of proven interventions which has helped cut the number of road traffic deaths in New York to its lowest level since before the First World War. It has meant things like getting pedestrians and cyclists to take geo-tagged pictures of where they think the roads are dangerous, and changing them to fit.

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The strategy was invented in Sweden in 1997 and adopted in New York 16 years later, because of a Brooklyn brewmaster.

The story goes like this: one of the people killed on New York’s streets in those 16 years was a young man called Sam Hindy, who died in a bicycle crash on the Manhattan Bridge in 2007. His father, brewmaster Steve Hindy, often went to Sweden on business and noticed that the streets were designed to protect cyclists and pedestrians as much as to be convenient for cars. After his son was killed, it mattered to him so much that he met one of Sweden’s Vision Zero administrators, Matts-Åke Belin, in 2009. He was so impressed with what he heard that he wrote an article about it for an advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, which went on to publish a report on it in 2011.

In 2013, seven years after Sam Hindy died on his bicycle, the new policy was announced by mayor Bill de Blasio, standing in a Queens schoolyard where an eight-year-old boy had been hit by a truck. More than two dozen other US cities, including Chicago, LA, Seattle, Austin and Washington DC, have now formally adopted the approach as well.

Twenty years since Vision Zero was invented, it has reached the point of fame at which it is being adopted around the world.
A few British cities, including London, Edinburgh and Blackpool, have adopted the approach, but there is no national policy and the number of road deaths is actually rising. While the UK has some of the world’s safest roads for motorists, that doesn’t hold for pedestrians and cyclists, and around 1,800 people are killed each year.

The story of the Hindy family is an affecting one, but is there really no better way to learn about what’s working elsewhere than through a chain of accident and happenstance?

Yes, there are international working groups for certain topics, and conferences where – if your department has budget for the flights – you can learn things depending on who you happen to sit next to. But the truth is that the civil service needs to get an awful lot better at learning from its neighbours.

The reason for that is the enormous pressure civil servants are now under. Budgets have been cut and cut again, and public services stretched ever further. To do that magical thing “more with less”, something has to change. You can’t work faster, you can’t work more; the only thing left is to work more cleverly.

Each of the UK’s immediate neighbours in Europe and its further flung but perhaps even more similar allies like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has hundreds of thousands of civil servants working on the problems that UK counterparts are working on. They have departments for housing, welfare, energy, the environment and all the others, tackling often closely comparable problems in often closely comparable ways.

And not just those countries either, but also forward-thinking, English-speaking places like Singapore, some of whose services make our equivalents look shabby. Or countries in the global south who have been running programs on things like financial inclusion – now a UK priority – for decades, and have been forced from the start to stretch thin budgets.

This vast and numberless throng of minds busily thinking, testing and solving is the single biggest resource available to civil servants, and the least tapped.

Doing so would also open up new possibilities for what policymaking actually does. The cheaper and less painful way to address social problems is to handle them further “upstream”, ie. before they’ve developed to crisis point.

The best means of reducing youth crime might not be a question of policing, but of education; the best means of improving education might not be a matter of schools, but of welfare and housing. Actually making those interventions means people in the Ministry of Justice knowing what their peers in education or the Department for Communities and Local Government are up to.

That’s not how government presently works. Instead there are the famous “silos” in which every person feels shorthanded, but doesn’t know what the other hands are doing. Connecting with civil servants in other departments and countries doesn’t just provide clever ideas for government, it makes the whole system more intelligent.

So how is all this possible? It wouldn’t have been only a few years ago. But today we all unthinkingly use platforms that maintain complex webs of connectivity and show us what our peers are up to: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and all the rest of them.

I and my colleagues at Apolitical believe that something similar can work for civil servants. We have built a peer-learning platform for civil servants to do exactly that. Co-designed with hundreds of civil servants from around the world and supported by the UK Cabinet Office, it lets civil servants quickly and easily see what’s working in other countries and message the people behind it.

We’re launching it topic by topic. Our first, “Innovative Public Partnerships” is live now for testing and will be officially launched at the end of May together with “Inclusive Economies” and “Data for Impact”. Later this year we’ll be launching “Smart Cities”, “Women’s Empowerment” and “Violence Prevention”. The World Bank, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and many other great public service institutions are helping bring together the right ideas and people.

I would highly recommend that you check it out. It’s free to use and if you don’t immediately find what you’re looking for, you can ask our “concierge” to find it for you. That “f***ing thick file” of great ideas is out there. Come and take a look.

About the author

Alex Starritt is media director of Apolitical, the global network for innovative public servants

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