Policymaking in the era of peak content

How can you make good decisions about the future of society and the economy in a noisy world? Despite what Michael Gove said this summer, It’s not over for policy experts – as long as they understand themselves as convenors of a better public debate.

Are the things you read making you anxious? Dean Starkman is an investigative reporter, and former editor of Columbia Journalism Review. As far back as 2010, he wrote:

our readers are all supposed to be super busy, so in theory it makes no sense—at all—to be increasing the volume of random items for these harried people to sort through. You’d think we’d be decreasing our volume, and making sure each thing offered to readers is really good.

This didn’t happen. In December 2015, Erica Berger wrote an article called ‘Peak Content’. She argues that “the people that seem to be causing you to feel overwhelmed are also overwhelmed“.

What we have come to call ‘content’ – like any other commodity – has reached its highest possible level of production. Like oil, funding additional production will only result in price falls, and producers failing.

This is a situation that Venezuela and staff at the Guardian would be familiar with.The Guardian has desperately tried to counter falling print revenues by a heroic campaign to capture digital audiences across the world. It’s been a production-led expansion: the paper has added a quarter of its nearly 2000 employees in the last three years. Yet the Guardian is not making money. It will burn all the cash reserves that have funded its expansion in ten years without a new strategy, and that means it will burn journalists first.

The news business knows there’s a problem here – and it’s been desperately trying to fix it. But what does this mean for policy? To begin with, a worse public conversation.

Barack Obama, feted by the US press all through his campaign, quickly established not just a very tight press operation when he entered the White House. By 2009, he was taking it upon himself to lecture the press on their role in a ‘better Washington’. Why? In the words of former Communications Director Anita Dunn, “when journalists call you to discuss a story, it’s not because they’re interested in having a discussion. They’re interested in a response. And the need to file five times a day encourages this.” David Axelrod will be familiar from running Obama’s two presidential campaigns. He complains, “there are some really good journalists there, really superb ones. But the volume of material they have to produce just doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for reflection.”

We have a smaller, meaner media in the UK. But our news environment also runs for 24 hours, and our politicians have perhaps been less able to influence it. The Leveson Enquiry, intended to investigate the culture and practices of our media after the desperate hunt for stories led to phone hacking, is yet to publish its second part.

Tony Blair famously commented at the end of his last term in 2007, “we paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media.” In his view, politicians became used to feeding the ‘feral beast’ of the media – but journalists too “are not the masters of this change but its victims”.  In this period, what Blair describes as impact became all important – this is what helps members of the press “rise above the clamour”.

The result is the Newsnight interview. Evan Davis describes it like this:

I think the worst of you. You play it as defensively as you can. Your strategy of being defensive is justified by me being aggressive and, worst of all, me being aggressive is justified by the obfuscation and nonsense of you being defensive. We’re now locked into the low road. Your strategy justifies mine. My strategy justifies yours.

This is not an environment where good policy can grow. Good policy needs reflection, not a barrage of new and contradictory facts. Good policy needs constructive debate, not adversarial sparring.

One popular view of think tanks runs a bit like this: the state of public debate is terrible, so government has increasingly come to rely on expert advisors to help it conceptualise problems, road test solutions, and sell them to the public. The think tanks that provide these solutions are secretive, they lack transparency over their funding, and they don’t distinguish between their research and lobbying activities.

Inside policy, the view is very different. Many think tank staff actually worry about declining influence, and a more insular machinery of government. Jo Maybin trailed civil servants in the Department of Health for 18 months, observing their behaviour in meetings, reading what they read (and wrote), as well as interviewing them. Here’s what she found:

  1. Policymakers learn from each other. Interviewees “talked in abstract terms about how the best civil servants were those with generalist policy skills, and not specialist subject knowledge.” However, in practice they relied on colleagues who had mastered a policy area.
  2. Policymakers hunt for the best. Because of time pressures, civil servants identified external advisors through chains of contacts-of-contacts. They valued not just facts, but opinions and new ways of thinking about problems.
  3. Policy formulation is “a craft of delicate alliance building”. In order to have a meaningful exchange with external partners, civil servants understood they would need to venture information about a policy’s content.

This reflects what think tank staff often say about their work. At a recent round table, they described their role as “loosening constraints” for policymakers to effect change, as “agents of change validation” and as a way for Government to “sense-check” a change-averse civil service.

Even this minimal role of think tanks imposes a requirement on think tanks in the era of peak content. Don’t add to the noise. Lessen it. Policymakers don’t need more complexity. They are looking for partners who can, in a reciprocal exchange,  provide expertise and insight. They’re looking for a considered challenge.

But that’s not the whole story. Think tanks exist because policymaking elites don’t have the fullest picture or the best solution. The more cynical the public becomes about the workings of government, the more government retreats into taking its advice from handpicked experts, rituals of consultation and verification, and bringing about change through executive action. Peers have recently expressed concern over “a worrying trend in which Parliament is asked to agree legislation that is lacking crucial details that allow it properly to scrutinise government proposals.” Devolution is supposed to bring power closer to communities in the largest constitution change of modern times – but has been supervised by seven officials in the Treasury.

There’s an essential difference between the news and policy. We rely on news to provide an illuminating, critical but ultimately accurate view of the world as it is. We rely on policy to provide workable options for what the world should look like next. But solving policy problems will increasingly require not only the challenging voice of experts but a convening role in which collective intelligence and resolve can be brought together.