Book review: Big Mind – an exploration of how government can think better

Written by Daniel Thornton on 16 August 2018 in Review
Review

Daniel Thornton reviews Geoff Mulgan’s book, which argues that solving the hardest problems is about improving the way people think together

Mulgan describes an aircraft safety system that significantly reduced crashes among US army pilots. Credit: Alexander Prautzsch/DPA/PA

Our thinking tools are getting more powerful, but the world is not all that clever. That is the argument of Geoff Mulgan’s book, Big mind: how collective intelligence can change our world. Mulgan shows how organisations and societies can get better at solving the hardest problems by improving the way people think together.  

This book’s analysis and advice are very relevant to government, which has lots of intelligent people who collectively get it wrong.


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"My experience of government is that signals from the front line are too often screened out as they travel to the top of a department"

Mulgan suggests that most of the every-day processes in organisations are automatic and based on experience, but that in an emergency, senior people get involved and bring additional resources. He describes the aircraft safety system that uses confidential incident reporting to spot errors, leading to changes in practices and the redesign of aircraft. In 1912 more than two thirds of the US Army’s pilots died in accidents, while by 2015 only one in eight million airline flights crashed. But he shows how hierarchies often struggle to make changes because revealing systemic problems can threaten the status of leaders or specialists, so problems get hidden.

My experience of government is that signals from the front line are too often screened out as they travel to the top of a department – a problem that was exhaustively documented in the Chilcot Inquiry. Government needs to get better at hearing these signals.

One of Mulgan’s solutions is to reinforce “the autonomy of intelligence” by creating independent groups which “serve us best by not serving”. He points to the What Works centres which he helped to set up as examples of bodies which can give government the advice it needs, rather than the advice it wants. The centres do indeed make a good contribution to the government’s collective intelligence. But the government does not respect autonomy enough, as it showed when the justice secretary fired the chief executive of the Parole Board, or when the education secretary appointed Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students.

Mulgan provides interesting examples from around the world of governments engaging citizens in new ways, with the aim of making better decisions by overcoming the biases of those on the inside. Most of these examples have been in small countries like Finland or in cities such as Reykjavik and Paris. It is hard to see the UK government making much progress in engaging citizens while debates about Brexit continue, but local government and city leaders should pay attention to this issue.

The book touches upon but does not really explore the idea of uncertainty. This is a gap. One of the problems I see in government and in other large organisations is the tendency to scientism – misapplied scientific methods, leading to false certainty. There are not scientific answers to most of the problems that government grapples with, however many clever people are assembled with whichever tools. Of course, government should gather the best evidence it can, but if it showed humility about what cannot be known, it would think and act better.

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Daniel Thornton
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Daniel Thornton is a programme director at the Institute for Government

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