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Three reasons why government should hire more writers
So much depends on clarity of intent

(23 June 2023)

Recently, I’ve spotted three things that make the case for government to hire more writers:

1. Because there’s a need to “change the narrative around bureaucracy”

At the very end of this 30-minute interview with Channel 4 News, economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato is asked:

“If you could change one thing, what would it be?”

And replies:

“Change the narrative about bureaucracy.”

If you’ve followed any of Prof Mazzucato’s work or read any of her books, you’ll know that she consistently argues for governments to work - and spend - smarter. It is possible for governments to be sources of amazing technical and societal innovation, when there are leaders at the top who enable and encourage it.

How do you change narratives?

Hire more writers.

2. Because culture change is driven by clarity from the top

In her recent book Recoding Government, Jennifer Pahlka (founder of Code for America and the US Digital Service, former Deputy Chief Technology Officer for President Obama) argues that culture change within government is just as important as policy change.

In an essay titled Culture eats policy, she describes how the rigidity of US public service culture causes astonishing bottlenecks. For example, a policy that ends up forcing one team to convert standardised data into a non-standard format, and back again, at great expense and delay. Or an HR system that makes it incredibly hard to hire the right people, with the right skills, into government.

Towards the end, she writes:

In their oversight role, lawmakers pay attention to failures almost exclusively. They could choose to find and elevate public servants like the ones in my book who exercise judgment in the service of honoring lawmakers’ intent and get the outcomes lawmakers and the public want. They could show how a more flexible, adaptable hierarchy works by inviting those at the lower rungs to help write legislation that will be implementable with less distortion.

How do you help lawmakers hire and elevate talented public servants? How do you show what more flexible, more adaptable hierarchies look like?

Hire more writers.

More from Jen Pahlka: in this Twitter thread she also says:

“Elected and appointed leaders should … change how they do oversight … with less emphasis on fidelity of plans established long ago … and more on asking what the team is learning along the way, and how they’re adapting to account for what they’ve learned.” (Link)

And the same leaders should:

“Work to reduce the policy complexity that burdens these programs and services with so much needless detail that it takes decades to learn all the rules.” (Link)

How do you help teams communicate what they’re learning as they go along? How do you simplify complex policy?

Hire more writers.

3. Because communication is a tool for changing organisations

My former colleague Kate Tarling wrote an excellent book about services, and in a recent post about it on LinkedIn, pointed out that services often “work against the fabric of how many companies are organised”:

“Service performance means looking horizontally across an organisation, when most are intentionally separated into functions that are central or vertical.”

Real change, says Kate, comes from working with the grain, not against it. She lists some suggested starting points, including:

How do you make things more visible? How do you create shared views of what services do? How do you spell out what ‘good’ looks like? How do you get clarity on remit, vision and strategy?

Hire more writers.


giles (at) gilest.org