Delivering the public goods in the 21st century

Robert Madelin, October 2013


The Director General for DG Connect in the European Commission, Robert Madelin. Photo: European Union 2013

A hundred and sixty years ago in London, two Victorian gentlemen laid the foundations of a permanent civil service as it is understood in much of Europe, including the EU institutions, today.  The Northcote-Trevelyan report defined the British Civil Service.  De Gaulle and Debré emulated it after the 2ndWorld War, and the French model in turn has inspired EU public service since the Treaty of Rome.

The fundamental truth known to Queen Victoria applies to this day. Government requires "the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers to advise, assist and to some extent influence those set over them."  Tough exams, real probation, career-long mobility and the removal of the mediocre seem sensible prescriptions still. The removal of the mediocre remains hard to do.  Nor, it must be said, does modern public service everywhere avoid the vice lamented by Northcote and Trevelyan as "the system of appointing strangers to the higher offices".  Still, in a period when the value of independent public service is occasionally questioned, it is as well to remember that the fundamental success factors underpinning the Victorian renaissance of public service remain true, and non-trivial, to this day.

More important, as the 21stcentury gathers pace, is that our irretrievably globalised economy and society require significant change in the goals, actors and tools of public service. Change not just in the face of the Internet of Everything but in response to the explosion of knowledge, not least the sciences of networks, of decisions and of cognition itself.

Better Goals

We are not good at setting the right things as priority goals.

The mirage of "evidence-based policy" and the rationalist reductionism that underpins it are the greatest threat to good policy making today.  We will set better public policy goals only if we operate in a truer framework. We can more credibly commit to deliver "politics influenced by evidence" because policy reflects not just good data but a mixture of scientific knowledge, value preferences and purely political considerations, all three drivers being legitimate in democracy. 

Science is neither the determinant of, nor a separate community from, policy.  Scientific thinking (social as well as natural) is a necessary guardian against self-deception and deserves always and everywhere to sit at the policy table.  The natural sciences bring clarity to the magnitude of issues, the options for intervention, and their likely impacts.  Cognitive and social science can enhance the knowledge of decision makers: knowledge about how our organisational contexts affect decision making, how our secret but strong cognitive shortcuts affect our reactions to evidence and how complex systems work.  Systems thinking in particular will help us to replace narrow, short run and static views of the world with more holistic, long term and iterative views, allowing policies and institutions to evolve more cautiously and more sustainably.

Better Actors

The mirage of evidence-based policy finds its counterpart in the chimera of enlightened technocracy: Weber on stilts. 

There is of course more than enough debate about conflict of interest, freedom of information and consultative machinery.  I feel that this is tinkering at the edges - necessary but far from sufficient to deliver what the 21st century needs. 

The last thirty years have seen an all too gradual recognition in Europe and abroad that government is just one (albeit one democratically legitimate) actor in a new and difficult world where legitimacy is diffuse, respect diminished and agency everywhere.  In response to this challenge, governments have moved through enlightened but still rather top-down rules of engagement (see the Commission's own 2001 Governance White Paper) and towards a recognition that government at its best is now the platform over which other actors build solutions to their own shared problems, providing a decent evidentiary base and modern cooperation tools, so that society can fix problems faster and at lower cost, with government on tap but not in the driving seat.

More actors is one thing, better actors an altogether more challenging goal.  In part, we need modern rules of engagement: the 2001 principles remain a foundation for that: governments everywhere still need to try harder, not just to live up to Northcote-Trevelyan standards of quality and dynamism, but to be open and transparent, coherent, accountable and, above all, participative.

More recently, the European Commission departments have published a short set of principles designed to frame multi-stakeholder cooperation, particularly in self and co-regulation.

Beyond such framing, we need to train bureaucrats better.  Even in 1853, our authors argued for a broader skill set than what was then the staple of classics and mathematics. We now have sundry schools of Public Administration and Public Policy, which certainly enable modern civil servants to assess policy-relevant scientific knowledge. 

The current mix of praxis and academic learning seems still not, however, to develop systematically a good understanding of the conditions under which sound knowledge is turned into effective policy.  As Daniel Kahnemann repeatedly emphasises, there is not even a systematic injection into the public sector's management of internal and external human contacts of what we know today of the manners in which those contacts may be designed either to reinforce our openness to "real" evidence or to push our decision-making back onto cognitive schemata and shortcuts. More learning needed.

Ingredients of success

If we have better goals and better actors, what could possibly go wrong? Seen from a public service seat, there remain two key foundation stones without which we shall still underperform our potential. Bureaucracy badly needs a culture shift. What we need is a greater commitment to "hard fun" in public service, coupled with a systematic recourse to "co-creation" between all interested stakeholders on all policy areas.  Together, these twin changes can be pursued under the hacker's slogan "join and share".  Internally, this means moving from siloed email-driven work to social platforms for open cooperation. Such tools are still at the cutting edge of organisational modernisation, even in the private sector: too often, and against all evidence, they are still derided as "frivolous toys"… but only by those who have not seen how much energy and creativity they can unleash.  To try them (even in the Commission) is to convert…albeit not necessarily overnight.

On the outside, similar tools and a little creativity can (safely) enable a large Directorate General of the EU public service to co-create its priorities, its evidence base and its key performance indicators with its stakeholders. We can also, without undue expense, harness the same co-creation principle to look ten, twenty, thirty years ahead in an attempt to remap the top priorities for an increasingly lean and burdened public service.

One step beyond this sort of work-in-progress lies current active research activity into the mix of social organisation, data and cooperative platforms. The key words here, in current research and in the coming work programmes of Horizon 2020, should be collective awareness platforms (society assessing issues and fixing them for itself) and social innovation as the new emerging models for success.


The spread and very survival of this emerging new approach depends in large part on the human factor.  But changing human organisations will depend on effective infrastructure, starting with high-speed broadband everywhere.  We will need then interoperability between services: between wards and specialist clinics in a single hospital, as well as across hospital regions and across Europe.  Interoperability requires technical and semantic as well as legal alignment, but need not require harmonisation of local methods, nor of policies.  There is however scope (funded under the coming financial framework) to deliver dedicated digital service infrastructure for digital public goods of prime concern at EU level: for example, eProcurement, on-line dispute resolution, company data, patient records. The list is endless but the core needs are clear, and the building blocks will be in place in the coming years, thanks to the Connecting Europe initiative in the new EU budget framework 2014-2020.

Vision needed

This is a ghostly outline of Public Service yet to come: what may be. But we shall not enjoy this future together without immediate changes of heart and mind. Public service modernisation in Europe today lacks intentionality.  Pockets of creativity and goodwill abound.  We lack as yet an overarching commitment to build Europe as a learning machine for the delivery of digital public goods.  We lack collective confidence in public sector modernisation. But with such confidence, with a big bet, we can commit to offer government (at all levels) as the architect and manager of the platforms over which all actors can generate ideas as to values and solutions to problems; can generate evidence as to what works as well as build networks for cooperative initiatives.  Europe is special. Its public service values are a part of the secret sauce.  We need to modernise the recipe in order to keep the lead.



Tags: European Commission, public goods, stakeholders

  • Robert Madelin

    Robert Madelin is the Director-General responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. Robert was educated ...

    Robert Madelin

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