Author Archives: hpulrich

How to optimize democracy? – An approach based on Systems Thinking

In aiming to optimize democratic policy making we need to realize that our rationality as human beings is not perfect, our training and our professional experience are limited to specific areas. These observations are also valid for our leaders. Also a randomly composed group of people will often not have the perfect solution for a problem. They might assess the situation wrong, miss out on one or the other relevant aspect, they might forget one or the other element in designing problem solutions, which leads to their ineffectiveness or even failure.

Management Science has developed problem structuring methods which guide our thinking and help us to make sure our problem solutions are adequate and effective in a given situation.

The approach we suggest in this blog to use for “optimizing our democratic policy making systems” is based on Systems Thinking.

Below I include a description of the method contained in an article I wrote with the title: “Enhancing the effectiveness of international development – a systems approach”, published in Development in Practice, Routledge, 04/2010. The reader will find details on the two books quoted in the text under the “Library” tag in the blog.

Systems Thinking, in particular the Contingency Theory or the “functional approach” within Systems Thinking, understands “systems of purposeful human interaction”, be it in business or public policy, to operate in a way similar to systems in biology, such as the human body.   According to Systems Thinking the elements or sub-systems, which systems in business or public policy need to contain in order to function effectively, are determined by the purpose the systems want to achieve. Key sub-systems for the functioning of the overall systems are communication and control.

Systems and their sub-systems are interdependent and organized in hierarchies; people in companies for example are parts of workgroups, which are part of departments, the departments being part of the company, and the company itself being part of a wider social system (Ulrich and Probst 1991).  

Reflecting these concepts, Ulrich and Probst (1991) propose a methodology for problem-solving and building effective systems, for management in both the private and public sectors, which includes the following main steps (slightly adapted from the concept of the authors): 

1.       Goal review and definition.

2.       Compilation of all parameters affecting the defined goal or goals.

3.       Observation of how the system and its elements behave without interference.

4.       Clarification of the possibilities for intervention.

5.       Determination of strategies for problem solving which address all parameters of relevance.

6.       Implementation.

7.       Evaluation of resulting situation and restart of process, if required.

 

They emphasise that getting the goals of a system right is of the highest relevance for the effectiveness of a system. In order to enhance the quality of the analysis, the authors recommend bringing in specialists from various disciplines to jointly analyse the relevant parameters for achieving these goals.

  Systems are, however, not only the organizations and processes created to fulfil certain aims. Checkland points out that systems, viewed in a wider perspective, also comprise the “actors”, those system elements who “operate” a system, the “customers” of a process (who may be “beneficiaries” or “victims”), and the “process owners” (those with the power to stop it, in the words of Checkland; in this paper we understand the “owners” also as those who initiate and drive a process) (Checkland 2001).  

The sections on how to optimize democratic policy making in this blog and the proposal for the sequence of steps required for optimizing our democratic policy making system will be based on these concepts.

They help us to define what kind of system democratic policy making is. Since systems “of social interaction” are defined by their goals, we suggest understanding policy making as a “system to manage public policy issues in such a manner that well-being of society as a whole is maximised”. But as we see already this proposal implies many questions which need to be discussed and clarified in society, such as the questions, how we define “public policy issues” or which role the well-being of minorities plays with respect to the general goal of maximizing the well-being of society. One advantage of the proposed process is that it forces us to identify and address each relevant question and issue in a systematic manner.

A key suggestion made in the approach is to involve people with different perspectives in the design of a problem solution. We suggest that at least some should have training in management and problem solving methodologies. As we point out in another section of this blog, our chances to arrive at the best systems and processes for optimizing the performance of the democratic policy making systems are the higher, the more perspectives we include.

A question of relevance in optimizing democracy is of course the critical issue raised by Checkland, who the “process owners” are, a question of particular relevance in the United States for example, where big money plays a major role in determining the outcome of elections and all too often perhaps also policy decisions.

The challenge is to find a solution geared to optimizing democracy in which wider civil society determines the precise goals and operations of the policy making system. The solution we suggest in this blog is a citizens’ initiative or association to “set the operational standards” for the policy making system.

Who tells a Head of Government which ones are the best methods to build effective policy making and delivery systems?

Whatever a democratic constitution may say in detail: In my opinion the Head of State in a democratic country is responsible to build effective systems and organizations for policy making and delivery. That is why we elect him or her. The fate of a nation, the state of infrastructure, of health systems, of schools, even peace and war and the life of people depend on the ability of a Head of State to take the lead in building effective policy making organizations.

But who tells a Head of State which methods exist and which ones are the best ones to build effective organizations, organizations which fulfill their purpose without wasting tax money?

A builder has his methods to measure whether a wall is level or not, a teacher has her methods to get a certain subject across to her students, a butcher has his methods to skin, let us say, a cow, a structural engineer has his methods to calculate the stability of a building. But what methods does a Head of Government have to build effective systems to serve a country and its people? Who tells the Head of Government about these methods?

We could argue a Head of State should know those required methods, just as a teacher knows their teaching methods. But in reality, our Heads of Government do have all kinds of professional backgrounds. Knowledge in methods on how to build effective organizations is usually not part of their qualification.

Just a couple of hours ago I had the exceptional opportunity to talk to a very high-ranking politician in a European country about this subject. I tried to convince him that the Cabinet Office, the office for co-coordinating the work of all government departments in that country, needed a know-how system to inform the Head of Government and best also the ministers about how to build the most effective organizations in designing and delivering public policy measures.

The conversation surprisingly lasted quite a while. But he, a full-blooded, long-time politician was completely convinced that the existing systems and organizations in policy making in that country were perhaps not perfect, but still rather good, and if they did not perform well enough, there were already plenty of institutions and processes both in the political and public spheres in place to correct any malfunctioning. Those were institutions and processes such as the national audit office, scrutiny by the media, or protests by citizens with concerns over a policy issue.

What we do not know, however, is how effective those processes and organizations are, whether they check in fact all policy making areas, how timely their work is, and which influence they have in establishing more effective policy making processes. The press as one means of control will generally get only involved in high-profile issues with a “story” value. Furthermore, as any professional person knows: Correcting mistakes which somebody made who did not (quite) know what they were doing, most often is a tedious and inefficient exercise. Sometimes people in charge rather decide to start over from scratch. Better to make sure from the beginning that things are done right, especially in the public arena where millions of public funds are at stake and where the well-being or even the life of citizens might depend on the effective design and implementation of public policy.

Heads of Governments need to know which methods exist for building effective systems and especially which ones are the best methods. They are not only responsible for the work of government departments and hundreds of thousands of and public employees, but also for the effects of policy making on millions of citizens. Heads of Governments are also responsible for building effective international institutions which have to tackle the complex and urgent problems our globe is facing. If our institutions are so effective, how come that carpets of plastic garbage the size of the middle of Europe are floating on our oceans? Is there no chance to stop this pollution? Or have we simply not tried well enough?

Even if we ask: “Who tells a head of government…”, we must realize that the knowledge on building effective organizations and systems is vast and may change. An individual person, or two, or three, are unlikely to have the best and up to date knowledge, on what the best methods to build effective public policy systems are. They might come from the same school of thinking, have a certain preference for one or the other approach, they might be lopsided in their judgment. That is why we need to build a truly effective system to inform the Head of State and his or her ministers on the best methods to build effective policy making and delivery systems. In addition, we need a system to check, whether previous Heads of Governments and ministers did their jobs properly, whether they have built truly effective institutions. From the perspective of politicians in the UK today that doesn’t appear to be so in the case of the EU.

Of course a Head of Government and his or her ministers do not only need to know what the best approaches to building effective systems are, they moreover must apply them. One reason keeping them from applying best practices may be that they are corrupt. That is where the relevance of an effective citizen control institution, suggested in other places in this blog, comes in: Citizens must make sure, first that a system exists to inform Heads of Government and their ministers about best practices, second that those best practices are in fact applied in their policy making work.

Who tells a Head of Government which ones are the best methods to build effective policy making and delivery systems? Unfortunately I did not come up with that question in the conversation with the politician. Would that have convinced him of the need to establish a know-how system to inform government about the best approaches to run a country? Does the question convince you? Let me know what you think.

Optimizing Democracy – The Sequence of Steps

Whichever way we may be aiming to contribute to improving policy making, be it by wanting to influence an individual policy area only or by improving the overall policy making system, given the size of the policy machines in democratic countries we must maximize the effectiveness of our own action, if we want to have any success.

The graph Optimizing Democracy – The Sequence of Steps describes how making a contribution of such a quality should be possible.

Presently there are many movements for better policy making in various countries: Better government initiatives, movements for direct democracy, initiatives to enhance transparency in policy making etc.

Competition and independence of thinking is necessary to allow the best ideas to come forward. But in order to move ahead effectively, agreeing on a plan and combining energy around its implementation is required. Any plan to make democracy better necessitates the approval of and legitimation by wider society anyway. If the initiatives to make public policy better cannot agree on the “best plan” to move forward, how should society then be able to support a particular concept? Initiatives working for an improvement of democratic policy making should jointly aim to present the best plan to wider society. This does not mean they should agree on the handling of concrete individual policy issues, but simply on the concept for generating the most effective policy making structures and processes.

Deciding on an effective way forward requires agreeing on a specific goal in the wider scope of “enhancing the quality of policy making”. Some people concerned about the state of our democratic countries propose concentrating on urgent individual policy issues, such as employment and social stability only. But what about global warming, the most severe threat for humanity as others suggest? How can we establish with greater certainty how large the threat truly is and what we must do concretely to fend it off? What also about health, about establishing international peace and understanding and avoiding further unnecessary deaths in lingering or new international conflicts? If we succeed in reducing unemployment at the present time, global warming might shatter any advancement in the well-being of society based on such success completely in the next twenty years or so, if we neglect doing something about it.

Given this interdependence of policy issues we suggest a comprehensive approach to making our policy making systems better. In the light of the relevance of our policy systems for our countries and in fact the management of the entire globe, we suggest not to settle for “improvement” as a goal but for “optimization”. As also mentioned in the graph, aiming now for setting up the best democratic policy making structures and processes will furthermore contribute to maintaining the best quality of policy making in the future. This might become important, if let us say in ten or twenty years from now, discontent with established parties were to increase to such an extent that more extreme parties came to power. To have mechanisms which even in such a scenario were to contribute to sound policy making would not be bad.

Once we have agreed on a specific goal, the graph suggests as a next step to analyze the parameters affecting the achievement of this particular goal achievement. It should be useful to insert at this point that the suggested steps here are a rudimentary application of a systemic problem solving methodology suggested by Hans Ulrich and Gilbert Probst in their book “Anleitung zum Ganzheitlichen Denken und Handeln” (Translates roughly to: “Guide To Interconnected Thinking and Action”), Haupt publishers, Berne 1991, a book which unfortunately does not appear to have been published in the English language so far.

The key factor of relevance for the quality of our democratic system as a whole will be the effectiveness of each individual step in the process of policy making, from identifying public policy issues, to prioritizing them, determining the best ways to tackle them, and attributing the required public resources to the solution of each policy issue. A rather intense debate on the role of the state has been led in the United States for some time. Many people demand the government’s “downsizing”. What democracies should have is a highly effective system to define the tasks of the state.

We suggest that the quality of each of these individual steps and of the processes to manage individual policy issues depends on five factors:

• The available know-how on optimizing the performance of policy making systems and processes
• The qualification of politicians and civil service employees
• The motivation of politicians and civil service employees
• The adequacy of resources to allow each system to achieve its purpose.
• The quality of control over each system.

In order to optimize democratic policy making, the initiative would have to ensure that those parameters are in place and optimized for each individual step in the policy making process itself, and also for each policy area. Systems thinkers suggest rightly that also communication between system, sub-systems, and stakeholders is of relevance for its output. We propose here that effective control will also take care of setting up effective communication systems and processes.

Control as the key parameter for success will also ensure that the other four factors mentioned are in place. It will ensure that policy makers and civil service employees have the optimal qualifications for their tasks, it will identify the best processes to check that both, politicians and civil service employees work only for the common good, beyond a fair salary, rather than for their own interests. It will arrange for an optimal match between the goals and tasks of public policy and the available resources.

In another part of this blog we emphasized the importance of know-how next to control. The first know-how element of importance is how to set up an effective control system over policy making as a whole. Once this know-how and an effective overall control system is established, this top level control system should set up a system to establish the optimal know-how for all detailed elements of the entire policy making process. As we also pointed out the support of wider society is required for establishing the optimal know-how for all of these processes.

An initiative which goes through all of the steps suggested exerts control over the policy making system. In the course of its work the initiative will realize that the aim must be to constantly ensure the optimal operation of the democratic policy making system. It becomes clear that a permanent citizens’ organization needs to be established to take on this responsibility. Last not least an initiative to optimize our democratic policy making systems would also have to examine the proposals made here.

How to optimize democracy? – Two things are necessary

From a very fundamental analytical perspective it takes two things to optimize democracy:

1. Optimal know-how in setting up the most effective democratic policy making systems and processes conceivable.

2. Making sure that this optimal know-how is adhered to and applied.

In the following a short discussion on what is required to establish the optimal know-how for making our democratic policy making system effective and for making sure that this know-how is applied. For a graph visualizing the issues discussed click here: How to optimize democracy – A graph

Establishing the “optimal know-how” for setting up an effective policy making system.

The following key factors appear necessary to establish an effective “know-how system”:

1. Assembling and scanning all know-how available in a country and the world.
2. Absolute openness for any suggestion whatsoever on the matter of “optimizing policy making” and even soliciting input from wider civil society on the issue (excluding one view only could mean we miss out on the best option for addressing a certain problem).
3. Optimal know-how in the objective assessment of approaches to system optimization.
4. Adequate human and financial resources.

What, as a next question, does it take to make sure the optimal methods identified for building an effective policy making are actually applied?

We suggest as the key factors: power and resources, next to effective communication.

Whose power and resources? Who is responsible for optimizing the system?

Democracy is government by the people, as one of the elements of the definition of democracy formulated by Abraham Lincoln.

So far we rely on our politicians to optimize policy making by themselves. This is wrong. Following the statement by Lincoln, the people, the citizens of a democratic country themselves, are responsible for optimizing the way they identify and handle their common policy issues.

Acquiring the necessary resources to identify the best know-how and the power to make sure that it is applied.

Achieving the goal to optimize democratic policy making processes in as short a time frame as possible requires an effective citizens’ organization which operates directly on behalf of the citizens and whose task it is to optimize the policy making systems and procedures. One task which the organization will have is to define the optimal dividing line between issues to be handled by direct democratic procedures and those to be handled by indirect democratic procedures.

Citizens must pool their resources to establish such an organization. No system is effective without effective control. Without such an organization the effectiveness of the policy making system is not guaranteed. The more people join the smaller will be the required contributions. The more “normal” citizens join, the larger the power of the association to ensure that no specific interest groups on the inside or the outside of the policy making system abuse it and reduce its effectiveness in working for the well-being of society as a whole.

Like a union working on behalf of society as a whole.

All in all we can envision the organization like a union working on behalf of society as a whole and making sure that the democratic policy making system works optimally for the common good. One task the organization will have is also to ensure that the national policy making system contributes in as much as only possible to establishing the most effective international organizations.

Our own knowledge not substantiated enough.

Optimizing democracy must begin with the initiative of citizens to set up a citizens’ control organization over policy making. This organization must then also set up an effective know-how system. Our knowledge as individuals or groups, or even as policy institutes is not substantiated enough to optimize our democratic policy making systems. We need effective systems to generate the best know-how.

How to optimize democracy? – Organizing the debate

Presently many proposals on improving democracy are discussed nationally and in the international public domain. The problem appears to be: The discussion is not organized, we don’t have an overview over all proposals, and we do not have an effective system to determine what the best solution is. Maybe all proposals have advantages and draw-backs, maybe we need to combine various proposals to arrive at optimal solutions. Our greatest problem: While we do not manage to determine the best options for optimizing democracy, our actions in improving democracy are stalled. In the meantime problems such as global warming and the threats to economic and social stability get bigger and more urgent from day to day.

One of the disadvantages of our present discussion, on how to improve democracy appears to be that we all think our proposals are the best ones. Governing our world is, however, a task of such complexity, that our individual knowledge does not suffice to establish what the best way forward is. To move ahead we, therefore, very urgently need to establish a highly effective system to analyze and evaluate all proposals which are presently “out there” in the public domain and to shape and determine the best solutions.

If we were to agree on this approach the questions remains, however, who precisely must take this action? Who must install such a system, before it is too late?

Democratic governments in this world should go ahead and establish already know-how systems to optimize decision and policy making in public policy, so we do not lose time. The final conclusion will, however, be that we, the citizens ourselves, as the ultimate stakeholders in democratic nations, must take the initiative to establish an effective organization which takes these tasks on.

What we as citizens would need to know or figure out is, how to set up an effective organization to fulfill this purpose. In addition we need to gather the resources to set up an effective organization, an organization outside of the established policy making systems working directly on behalf of citizens to optimize the policy making systems.

The main issue is to get started on making democracy effective and to then jointly determine the most effective way in going ahead. For this we need to take any suggestion for the most effective way forward on board to be sure we do not miss the best option.

How to optimize democracy? – Some basic thoughts

Democracy is government by the people, as one element of the statement by Abraham Lincoln on the nature of democracy.

The prime way for citizens to take control of their world and their policy making systems suggested in this blog is to join in and support a citizens’ association for “Optimizing Democracy”.

Our current control systems such as the parliaments do not work effectively. But no system works well without effective control. Also our policy making systems don’t.

Citizens, therefore, must establish effective systems to shape and control the democratic policy making systems. We as citizens ourselves are responsible for the way our policy making systems work, for the quality of our governments in whichever country we live, and for the way we treat the globe.

In a democracy complaining about the work of governments is not enough. We as citizens must take constructive action to optimize the way our democratic policy making systems work.

Why optimize democracy?

Many regions in the world and the world as a whole are facing severe actual or potential crises:
1. Global warming could well turn into the most existential crisis for human beings across the globe the world has seen so far.
2. The West has been seeing increasing gaps in income and wealth and wide unemployment, especially also among the young generation, already dubbed the “lost generation”.
3. The Arab countries are struggling to build effective democracies which help to secure fair opportunities and balanced well-being for all its citizens.

In addition the fight against global poverty remains a gigantic task after more than 60 years of international development corporation. We see conflicts in many parts of the world over matters of religion, land or resources which urgently need to be resolved in order to avoid further unnecessary bloodshed. Pollution affects the state of the globe everywhere. Our oceans are covered with carpets of plastic rubbish the size of central Europe, rubbish which also threatens to enter the human food chain. No individual human being would approve of such pollution, but the policy systems we have in place do not prevent it. At the same time the expected steady increase of the global population to 9 billion by the year 2050 continues to add to the pressure on the resources of the globe year by year. Finally, as a completely different problem largely unnoticed by the public in the light of these more imminent challenges, advances in biogenetic medicine could well endanger even the dignity of human life. Our policy making systems would have to keep us updated on those developments and, next to the benefits, the risks for humanity involved in them.

Democracy as we operate it does not appear to be able to cope with these challenges.

It has a number of inherent deficits which need to be fixed. One of them is that it forces politicians to look out for the next day’s headlines and for votes in the next elections, rather than for long-term and sustainable problem solutions. Another problem of democracy is corruption, more generally the tendency of many politicians to put their own benefit above their work for the common good, a problem widespread in many countries. Those deficits severely affect the capacity of democratic policy making systems to cope with the economic and other challenges of our time.

As a consequence of the ineffectiveness of democracies in dealing with the problems especially in the area of economics we have seen and keep seeing uprisings in many countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, as well as the rise of the Occupy movement in the US and Europe. Also the London riots of 2011 have been attributed to the lack of opportunities for the young generation and the fact that, as a consequence, many young people do not have a stake in society.

Since the pressure on employment and income in the West is likely to rise with ongoing globalization, some observers consider it highly likely that the number of protests and riots will increase. They warn against a potential outright economic and social collapse of the old industrialized societies in the years to come. The distinguished British-American historian Tony Judt writes: “ Few in the West today can conceive of a complete breakdown of liberal institutions, an utter disintegration of the democratic consensus. But what we know of World War II – or the former Yugoslavia – illustrates the ease with which any society can descend into Hobbesian nightmares of unrestrained atrocity and violence”.

Our only chance: Optimizing the performance of democracy

All problems mentioned above, global warming, pollution of the globe, unemployment, global population growth and establishing balanced well-being in a world in which 80% of the people live in so-called developing countries are problems of the highest complexity and urgency. Many of those issues are interdependent, such as reducing poverty, creating peace, establishing strong economies, and effective administrative systems. Also in our interconnected world the economic development in other countries is likely to affect employment and well-being in our own country.

Dealing with such interdependence and complexity, fighting those challenges and avoiding crises potentially arising from them, requires the most effective and efficient use of our resources. We have to get our priorities right in the way we spend our resources and we must learn, how to achieve our goals in each policy area with the minimum amount of resources necessary, so we can free resources up for other tasks. Achieving these goals requires the most effective policy making systems conceivable.

The goal of only “enhancing” the performance of our democratic policy making systems is not enough in the light of these challenges and the existential risks connected with some of them. In a highly competitive sport athletes will tickle every bit of reserve out of their bodies. They will optimize any element of their preparation from training to nutrition and mental fitness to enhance their competitiveness. For democratic states the complexity of the challenges and the highly competitive nature of the world today mean that also their national and international systems must perform to the highest standards and make the best use of any resources available to them. On the international level we must jointly create the very best systems and procedures to handle the problems our globe is facing.

Optimizing Democracy, setting up a competent and fair policy making system of the highest standards, is also of relevance for countries which try to build sustainable and strong democratic systems, for example Egypt, countries which need to provide fair and equal chances and balanced well-being to different ethnic, cultural and religious segments in their societies in order to establish and maintain peaceful and productive co-existence between these segments.