Category Archives: Process and Model

Back to Basics for British Politics

The decisive question: How can Britain get a government with professional decision and strategy making capacities of the highest quality?

After the upheaval of Brexit, which divided the nation, the election greatly added to Britain’s political chaos rather than ameliorating it. For a small regional party like the Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to determine who governs Britain in such a difficult situation, can only be considered a fluke of history, not the result of purposeful and effective design of the political system. The mayhem of the election outcome seems to reflect an increasingly chaotic world in which the most varied positions and beliefs clash with each other and in which no party seems to be able to offer a convincing view suitable to generate wider consensus in society on what the best policy solutions are.

What Britain needs to do in order to sort out the political mayhem caused by Brexit and the election outcome is to go back to the basics of politics. Society needs to refocus on what it ultimately requires from its political system. Speculating on who will be governing in the future and when a new election might be necessary, does not generate a sustainable solution. It only extends the instability harming the nation. To provide stability and to unify the nation, Britain requires nothing more or less than an extremely qualified government free from any pre-conceived beliefs and dogmas, but simply bent on and fully capable of identifying and communicating the very best solutions for the nation on each and every political issue at stake.

But here is the flaw. Unless British society improves some fundamental mechanisms of the political system, it simply will not get a government of the quality it urgently needs. Already in 2012, a Parliamentary Committee came to the devastating conclusion that government practically did not possess any professional strategy making capacity whatsoever. They formulated: We have little confidence that Government policies are informed by a clear, coherent strategic approach, itself informed by a coherent assessment of the public’s aspirations and their perceptions of the national interest.” The parliamentarians emphasised that such lack of strategy making capacity in government would necessarily lead to faulty policies in all policy areas and, as a consequence, cause the greatest harm to the nation. Rather than concentrating on sound and solid policy making and on fixing this fundamental fault in the British political system, both, Cameron and May gambled, lost, and created chaos.

What the nation has to realise, is that whichever person or party governs, whether May, Johnson, or Corbyn, whether Conservatives, Labour, or any other party, does not make much of a difference for the quality of policy making at all. As Anthony King and Ivor Crew describe in a book with the title “The blunders of our governments”, the history of politics in Britain over the past decades shows that governments formed by all parties are liable to severe blunders in their policy making. This will only change, if it is ensured that the governments formed by any party or politician possess decision and strategy making capacities of the greatest degree of professionalism and effectiveness.

How can it be ensured that the country gets a government of the quality it requires?

As a first step for creating an effective government and sorting out the present chaos, the nation or parliament ideally should select a person as the leader of the government and as Prime Minister who, objectively and independently of their party affiliation, possesses the most advanced qualifications in decision and strategy making. In the present quasi stalemate in parliament this would be a non-partisan approach by all politicians serving the nation best. Unfortunately, such a proposal may sound too unconventional and may not generate much support, even if, objectively seen, it appears to make sense. Especially the leader of a government must have a comprehensive grasp of professional decision and strategy making methods in order to guide the political system in the formulation of sound and effective policies.

An advisory council on effective decision and strategy making processes indispensable

Independently of who is or will be nominated as the Head of Government in the future, a second step is indispensable:  Government needs a system of some kind, let us call it an “advisory council”, which supports government in making use of the very best methods in decision and strategy making, such as for example the management sciences provide them. Government needs to know about and use problem solving tools provided by Operational Research, it needs to be familiar with systemic decision and strategy making methodologies, it needs to apply methods such as the Alternative Hierarchy Process in decision making, which induces government to clearly identify, weigh and prioritize goals exactly against which to evaluate its strategic alternatives. In the decision-making process on EU-membership for example until today there exists no clear listing of the goals of the country especially in terms of international co-operation, no weighing, and no prioritisation, against which to measure the different strategic options. Such deficits in strategy making are one reason why governments cannot come up with convincing solutions suitable to generate a far-reaching consensus and why they are unable to unite society behind a proposed solution.

So far, like in most, if not all democracies, in Britain there is no institution which supervises the functioning of the political system. As a consequence, such fundamental deficits as the lack of decision and strategy making capacity in government identified by the Parliamentarians already in 2012, now five years ago, are not being fixed. The effects are constantly causing harm to society and threaten to increasingly destabilise the nation.

Only if the political elite and society as a whole ensure that government has the necessary capacities in decision and strategy making and that government actually applies these capacities to the benefit of society, will Britain get political leadership of the quality the nation urgently requires. Only then will it get a government which can provide direction to society, join it together, and lead society effectively in an extremely complex world of 7.5 billion people.


How to make democracy work? From ideas to structured action.

Words, thoughts and ideas are valuable, if we want to strengthen our democracies. But they do not suffice.

“What’s gone wrong with democracy – and how to revive it” asks the Economist in an essay in its March 1st – 7th edition.

The Economist What is gone wrong with dem Title Picture

The concern of the article must be appreciated. Functioning democracies are of crucial relevance for the establishment and maintenance of well-being and freedom, for social stability and peace, and in fact for the maintenance of the earth. The Economist article raises many valid issues on the state of our democracies and suggests solutions to a wide variety of deficits.

Unfortunately, the contribution which the article can make to reviving established democracies or to help establish flourishing democracies in crises countries appears very limited due to three deficits: First, the recommendations seem too general in parts, what does “nurturing democracy” the final recommendation in the article, mean precisely for example? What exactly is necessary? Second, the issues the article raises and its proposals are rather randomly selected, they lack a key, a structure. We suggest that in order to strengthen democracy we have to identify the drivers behind the health of democracy and address them systematically.

Third, the essential major deficit, which so many articles on democracy share: The article fails to specify who exactly must take its suggestions on board, who precisely is to examine them and to take concrete action. Words, thoughts, and ideas do not cure our democracies. Making democracy work takes concrete action, by those who are concerned about democracy, by the writers on democracy, and in fact, since democracy is government “by” the people, by all of us. If we are concerned about the state of our democracies, we need to establish an infrastructure responsible to evaluate and implement the required measures to make democracy work. Anybody who has suggestions on how to strengthen democracy must realize that making suggestions does not make much sense without the infrastructure in place to process these proposals.

So maybe we can induce the Economist to perhaps even spearhead concrete action to save and strengthen democracy around the world? If we are serious about making our democracies effective and saving our world, we all must think beyond our traditional frame of mind and activity. We must think and act as constituent and active elements of our democratic societies.

What is democracy?

If we are right with our suggestions on the deficits concerning the article by the Economist on democracy, what then might be a more suitable, concrete approach to making democracy work? The first fundamental, necessary step appears to be the establishment of a clearer joint understanding of what democracy is about.

We suggest that democracy is a form of organizing the peaceful and productive co-existence of people in a society. Concretely it is joint decision and policy making by the people on public issues in such a society in an extremely complex world for the well-being of present and future generations.

(If you suggest a different starting point and a different approach, let us know.)

Fundamental Building Blocks and Action Required

On the basis of this understanding of democracy, we suggest that the following fundamental building blocks and actions are necessary to establish functioning democracies.

1. “Peaceful and productive co-existence “ – Only absolutely necessary rules to be implemented

The foundation for a democracy is the readiness for peaceful and productive co-existence of human beings in a society. In order to ensure that such fruitful co-existence is possible, certain rules are necessary.

According to the psychologist Maslow self-realization, however, is one of the highest aims of all human beings. To minimize the reduction of individual freedom by rules and regulations, only those rules should be put in place in society which are absolutely necessary for the peaceful and productive co-existence of people.

The fundamental rule required for such co-existence is the Categorical Imperative. It means in its basic form that the freedom of people ends where the freedom of other people begins. The Imperative may suffice as a framework for the rules required in a society.

One feature of the world, of Creation, is diversity. People naturally believe in different things. Trying to impose standards and rules derived from a specific conviction or religion on society as a whole limits the freedom of individuals and is counterproductive to peaceful and productive co-existence. (Only if nobody in a society objects to further rules than those necessary for the functioning of a society, can those be adopted. People who join a monastic community for example voluntarily agree to more stringent rules than those necessary for constructive co-existence.)

2. “By the people”

Democracy means that, we, the people govern the affairs of society ourselves. We as citizens in a democratic nation must realize that democracy cannot mean electing governments and letting them make decisions and policies on our behalf, without us as citizens ensuring they perform their tasks effectively and efficiently.

The privilege of freedom, which comes with democracy, demands that we ourselves are constantly involved ourselves in the process of governing the world. If we don’t use our freedom in controlling who governs us and how to govern the world, our freedom will be taken away from us. Uncontrolled power holders might destroy the world. We ourselves govern and are responsible for this world. We must make “our” democratic policy making systems work effectively, so they fulfil this responsibility for us.

3. “Joint” decision and policy making equally by all people

Even if democracy traditionally means that the majority decides, this cannot mean, as the Economist points out, that the majority dominates minorities and compromises their freedom and well-being beyond the limits and regulations which must apply evenly to all members of society. In a democracy everybody needs a fair and equal chance and should be involved in decision and policy making processes. Fairness is the minimum precondition to maintaining a stable society. The more the principle of fairness is superseded, however, by principles of co-operation and mutual support, the more productive will a society be. The better will the society of a nation or, in fact, global society fare.

4. “On public issues”

The Economist article suggests that the “key to a healthier state, in short, is a narrower state”. This appears to be an extreme attitude, as it is often also formulated by the Tea Party Movement in the United States (“starve the beast”).

We suggest that in order to maintain a democracy in a healthy state we rather must identify the “optimal” scope of the tasks of the state. Where a state does not support individual citizens for example who need support, society as a whole might suffer. The “optimal” interplay between joint and individual action will benefit society most.

In order to define such an optimal delineation between the tasks of the state and the obligations and rights of citizens we, the citizens of a democratic society, need an effective system to decide what precisely the tasks of the state and what the rights and obligations of citizens as private individuals should be. In most, if not all, democratic societies such an effective transparent system to delineate the tasks of the state and of private individuals will not yet exist.

5. “For the well-being of present and future generations”

The aim of our joint decision and policy making in a democracy must be the well-being of people, not only of present, but also of future generations. We are obliged to maintain our societies and our world in a good state for future generations as well. Our policy making processes must be geared to take this into account.

6. A complex world: The need to aim for the highest degree of effectiveness

From looking at the state of our world we derive which level of quality our joint policy making processes must have.

Our nations with millions or hundreds of millions of people -in the case of India and China more than a billion – and our world of seven billion people are extremely complex. Defeating poverty and hunger, creating jobs for millions of people, managing national and the global economies, protecting the entire world and human life, stopping the destruction of the world by global warming, creating and maintaining peace and co-operation are highly difficult tasks.

Making democracy work, keeping people satisfied with its performance, and fulfilling our responsibilities to future generations, requires from us to set up the most effective systems conceivable for joint decision and policy making on public matters.

7. Parameters required for setting up effective democratic policy making systems

We suggest that the citizens of a society and a nation require four key parameters to create such joint decision and policy making systems and processes of the highest levels of effectiveness:

7.1. Permanent Citizen Control

No systems works without effective control. Our present control systems, however, do not work. Parliament as the main control system for example, is too much intertwined with government in parliamentary democracies, as one reason.

No democratic policy making system works without the people themselves permanently checking what their elected leaders do. No democratic system will work effectively without a clear identification of faults and deficits and without an effective process to fix them in due time. As we highlighted already: Democracy is government by the people. Democracy will not work if the people themselves do not get engaged in permanently controlling, supervising, and, if necessary, re-shaping their democratic policy making system.

For such effective citizen control over our governments and policy making systems three further parameters are necessary:

7.2. Know-How

In order to correct deficits of the present policy making system and to set-up the best democratic policy making system conceivable, we the people, the citizens of a democratic society, need the very best know-how available in our countries and in the world on these matters. We need to establish a suitable process or institution to assemble this know-how.

The Economist, just like all of us, might have beneficial thoughts and proposals on how to make democracy work better. Whether these ideas are truly the best options, is a different and important question. If we want to optimize our policy making systems, we need effective processes and systems to evaluate these suggestions. We also need to communicate with citizens regularly on the options to improve our policy making systems and on necessary steps to implement such improvements.

7.3. Resources

Establishing these processes takes resources. Citizens must join together to provide them.

Functioning democratic policy making systems are of fundamental relevance for the life of everybody living in democratic nations. They also are crucial for our task of preserving the world for future generations. We as citizens should not refrain from making the resources available necessary for providing our society with proper policy making foundations. Providing these resources will easily pay off by making all our policy making more effective and efficient.

7.4. Power

If we as citizens, or an organization established by us, after a most thorough process of evaluation has identified a democratic policy making system or individual procedures, which it deems optimal, then this system or these procedures should generally be implemented. (Probably we should still verify in each case that the proposals are based on sound processes.)

Any proposals for improvement may, however, meet the objections and resistance of the existing government or individual segments of society in our country who benefit from the status-quo.

Overcoming such inertia against the implementation of a more effective policy making system may require the combined power of the citizens, of wider society as a whole. Generally, the more people support a Citizens’ Initiative for better democratic policy making, the easier will it be to implement required changes and the more effective the initiative can operate. A citizens’ organization for effective democracy which works on the basis of sound processes and which has thousands or hundreds of thousands of members cannot be ignored. (In a democracy basically everybody should get involved in making sure the policy making systems work effectively.)

8. Concrete Necessary Action

If these four parameters are required to generate the most effective democratic policy making system conceivable, the question is, how do we ensure that these parameters are in place?

8.1. Establishing a Citizens’ Know How Institute on Public Policy

On the issue of identifying the best processes for our democratic policy making system, we have to realize that our present process of discussing deficits and problem solutions randomly in the media or of researching policy making issues in hundreds of research institutes in a rather uncoordinated fashion is highly ineffective. While the destruction of our world goes on, while poverty rises and conflicts are not solved, our so far ineffective “solution generation” process wastes very precious time, often months or even years. Moreover, it very often does not generate good results at all. The task of identifying the best processes for an effective (and fair policy making system – something of the greatest relevance in the Ukraine at present) itself requires a suitable and highly effective infrastructure. It requires what we might call a “Citizens’ Know-How Institute on Public Policy”.

As the Economist rightly points out, democracy is in a dire state around the world. We urgently need to make it work. If the Economist is serious about achieving this goal, here is a first concrete necessary action to which the journal could contribute in a critical fashion or in which it could even adopt a leading role: The Economist could take and promote steps to establish the required Citizens’ Know-How Institute. Given its standing and its experience in public communication, an institution like the Economist would have substantial assets in making this first necessary project work.

9. Establishing A Citizens’ Control Institution over the Democratic Policy Making System

As we said, know-how is only one necessary element of what is more generally required to make democracy work: Permanent and effective control by citizens.

As we mentioned, the work of the Know-How Institute, identifying the optimal know-how and communicating with society and politicians on solutions for our policy making system costs funds. Furthermore, implementing the proposals against potentially obstinate governments or undemocratic interest groups might require the combined power and the joint support of the people on whose behalf the Know-How Institute works.

All these actions need to be put on a sound platform, for them to be effective. To organize these measures, citizens of democratic nations or those aspiring to set a functioning democracy up should join in an initiative, a Citizens’ Organization controlling and shaping their policy making system. Again, a democratic policy making system can only work effectively with effective control.

This is the second step to which the Economist could be contributing, if they want to make democracy work.

9.1. Education and Communication on Active Citizenship

What we have discussed here is simply rational: No systems works without effective control. In a democracy the stakeholders, the citizens themselves need to take an active role in exerting effective control, otherwise democracy will not work. In order to exert effective control, people need optimal know-how, they need to pool resources, and they need to join their individual power in an organization controlling the policy making system on their behalf.

We could imagine the organization to operate in a fashion similar to a referee in a sports match. It is an organization supervising the politicians and parties as players in a democracy. (The difference is that the control organization also sets the rules for the players on the field. The organization should not be a party itself, because a game requires someone setting the rules and supervising it.)

At present, the crucial role of the citizens in controlling their democratic policy making systems, the necessary parameters for effective citizen control and making democracy work, the interdependence between freedom, citizen engagement, and the outcome of the policy making system are not generally understood in society. A key reason is a lack of suitable citizenship education in our schools and a lack of exchange and communication on these matters later in life. Democracies around the world, also established democracies, are in a critical state. To make democracy work we need to establish a new culture of democratic citizenship.

The third necessary action, the Economist could be contributing to, is to foster the creation of such a culture. The Economist could contribute to establishing a more effective citizenship education system at our schools, and also a system to communicate and educate people later in life on the need and the possibilities for their involvement as citizens.

Concrete effects of the proposed concept

At this point we can mention only two effects the proposed concept will have.

Political Leadership

It probably has been known for decades or centuries, or perhaps since the inception of democracy that democracy does not necessarily generate leadership of the quality required to govern a country and the world. In his 2013 book “The Future” Al Gore repeatedly points out that we need better political leadership and steering to solve the urgent problems of our world such as global warming, increasing unemployment, hunger etc. If even Chinese observers, as the Economist writes, rightly formulate that democracy allows “certain sweet- talking politicians to mislead the people”, the question for us, the citizens in democracy, is why we do not finally take action to cure this deficit. Why do we not establish ways and means to ensure that our politicians have the required qualification profile and qualities to lead our societies in this complex world?

If we create a Citizens’ Control Institution over the policy making system, we would actually have an effective process to take this issue on. A Citizens’ Control organization – or its Know-How Institute – could actually identify the necessary leadership qualifications our politicians must have. It could discuss with universities, what they need to teach politicians, so they contribute adequately to the qualification of the politicians in a society.

Even if we were to take such measures to ensure the qualification of politicians, we still should not depend on the random and – by nature – limited qualifications of politicians (they are human beings like everybody else). We must establish effective systems and processes to ensure that in spite of the human shortcomings of our politicians also our overall policy making systems work as effectively as possible.

An Opportunity for Constructive Citizen Engagement

A second benefit of the proposed system is that it offers a path for constructive engagement with democracy to all those who are dissatisfied with the performance of democratic political system.

In many democracies people demonstrate against their politicians and governments. Discontentment partly leads to conflict, destruction, and loss of life. In some western democracies politicians think about forcing citizens, who are disenfranchised with their political systems, to vote.

Protest and destruction do not make a democratic system more effective. Voting or even forcing people to vote will not improve the performance of the political system either.

Improving a democratic system takes constructive steps as we sketched them. Setting up a new effective democratic policy making system or improving the performance of an existing system requires, as we suggested, know-how, resources, and power.

A Concrete Initiative by All Concerned Citizens and Institutions Required

To summarize: We need effective democracies to maintain our societies and our world in a good state. Generating such effective democracies requires setting up a know-how institute and effective citizen control.

While, as we said, the Economist has probably a lot of assets to its credit which could help to make the necessary projects work, it is of course not only the Economist who should get involved in kick-starting these processes.

Everybody in society, people and institutions concerned about the state of our world and the state of our democracies must join in.

Of course, only those persons and institutions can get involved in a “Citizens’ Initiative for Better Democracy” who want to serve the Common Good, the well-being of all. Only if the organization truly pursues this goal will it generate trust and the support by wider society it requires. Only then will it be able to work as an effective citizen control system over the democratic policy making systems of a country.

“Send in the clowns” – Which qualifications do our politicians need precisely?

“Send in the clowns”, titled The Economist after the recent parliamentary elections in Italy when the party of the comedian Beppe Grillo won 25% of the total votes and the party of Silvio Berlusconi 30%.

Economist Italy Elections Send in the clowns

Of course the views of clowns on developments in society and politics can be refreshing and stimulating. Yet the professional qualification as a clown is unlikely to be a suitable qualification to steer our countries with tens or hundreds of millions of people in the time of globalization. It must be doubted that clowns will have the capacities to create jobs for millions of people, the most pressing issues in many European states at this point in time or perhaps to even select people with the required qualifications for this job. Since the US have had at least two world renowned actors as top nation or state leaders we must of course also ask under which conditions actors can be suitable heads of government. Are intelligence, integrity, and honesty, criteria which clowns and actors might fulfill, sufficient as qualifications to lead our nations and the globe?

“Whether policy making oriented towards the needs of the majority of people is successful, depends ultimately on the capacities and the character of the leading persons in politics”, writes the German law Professor Hans Peter Bull in a recent article on democracy in a paper. But which qualifications do our politicians require precisely for their tasks? And how do we make sure that our politicians in fact possess these qualifications?

One perspective on the tasks of our politicians is that they are responsible for public funds of hundreds of billions of Euros or Pounds or other currency equivalents, or in the case of the USA even for a few trillion of USD, and at the same time for organizations which employ hundreds of thousands or even up to 2-3 million of public employees, the numbers quoted in some analyses for France, Germany, and Italy for example. In comparison the largest private corporation in the world, the US retailer Walmart has revenues in the area of 400 billion USD and about 2.2 million employees, the tenth largest private corporation in terms of employees, Aviation Industry Corporation of China, has about 500 000 employees and revenues of about 240 billion USD (2011 numbers).

As the comparison illustrates, our politicians operate organizations which are at least as large as the largest private corporations in the world. Our politicians must make sure that the gigantic organizations they lead are structured and perform optimally and that they generate a maximum of benefits to the public out of the sizeable amounts of tax money or other public funds they require for their work. The work of our politicians contains a significant, if not a dominant element of management responsibility.

Against this view one might contend that the Civil Service has its own management which “supports” the politicians in their leadership jobs. That view would mean the tail is wagging the dog. We rather elect our heads of government as the key persons we look to in running our states as effectively as only possible and to “sort out things” in the public sphere for us, when they have gone wrong. Our heads of government must lead, not only in policy design, but also in policy implementation.

What are the tasks of our politicians, especially of our Heads of Government, in more detail? They must identify the public concerns of the people and any risks for the well-being of society from economic, technological, environmental or other developments. They must identify which issues are more critical than others, jobs, infrastructure, defense and global stability, health, education, welfare programs, or the exploration of space, a difficult task since many of those aspects are interdependent. More education might generate more jobs and more production, more tax income, and allow for better infrastructure and social services, but more education without simultaneous other measures to create jobs might be a waste of funds. Politicians need the methodical skills to analyze and assess these complex interdependencies. Having set adequate priorities they must raise and assign public funds to these issues. Finally they must design and implement strategies, they must establish the effective organizations mentioned above and effective control mechanisms, and they must co-ordinate the work of public institutions at various regional levels in a country.

Also the look at these individual tasks tells us that policy making is to a large degree a management task. As polls have shown, citizens in fact primarily expect from their politicians effectiveness and efficiency in delivering public policy. Implicitly also citizens attribute the highest importance to the practical management skills of their politicians rather than to “soft” skills, such as presentation and communication.

Of course many other qualities are of importance for the work of politicians such as intelligence, integrity, depth of thinking, openness and creativity, modesty, the capacity to communicate simple manners in a comprehensible fashion, negotiating skills, and finally a certain understanding of political processes. We should specify and weigh all these skills and qualifications in job descriptions for politicians just like in job descriptions for any other job. It is astounding that every accountant, nurse, or engineer must fulfill specific job requirements. Only our politicians don’t, even if the well-being of our entire societies and the state of the world depends on these qualifications. It is amazing that so far we mostly vote for politicians, because they can present their ideas in charismatic and convincing style, not because they fulfill a “hard” qualification profile. If democracy is ineffective it seems to be to a large degree our own fault, since we do not specify the qualifications our politicians need and do not ensure they comply with those requirements.

Many observers make proposals on how to ensure the qualification of politicians for their jobs. In an article for the web-journal opendemocracy Takis S Pappas from Greece suggested in 2011 for example an open list electoral system which would allow voters to choose among individual political candidates rather than on the basis of their party affiliation. Using such an open procedure or a traditional party list we could make it a precondition that anybody wanting to work as the Head of Government or head of any government department must fulfill a minimum qualification catalogue before they are even allowed to stand for election. We could select the five candidates which fit our objective qualification criteria best, then have them present their views thoroughly on TV and elect the best one of these five candidates.

Governing our countries and the world is an extremely complex task, whichever procedures for electing the best candidates we might select. We should in any case, therefore, never rely on a single person to have the required or even optimal knowledge for this task. In addition to making sure that our politicians have certain minimal qualifications we will still need an effective know-how system on how to run a country optimally, an institution which our politicians can draw upon in decision and strategy making and in setting up effective public organizations. Furthermore, as pointed out in other parts of this blog, we as citizens and highest sovereign in democratic states need a control system to make sure that the head of government, the ministers, and the public organizations in fact apply the state of the art know-how in governing the country for the benefit of all citizens, do not risk the state through incompetent policy making or work for their own interests.

What happened with the proposal made by Takis S Pappas in 2011 on the open-list system for elections? Has anybody examined it? Has it been accepted, rejected, or refined and implemented? Where are the results of our thinking about how to improve democracy? What the example shows is that our democratic nations most urgently need an effective organization to discuss and evaluate proposals like the one made by Pappas or made here on the qualifications of politicians, so we get to the best concrete concepts as soon as possible.

The sand glass for our task to make our democratic policy systems effective appears to be running. The social and political stability in many democratic countries is at stake, people even get frustrated with democracy itself, while it is the only form of government which guarantees their freedom. To maintain stable and equitable societies, to maintain the globe in a good state we must improve the performance of our democratic policy making systems, and that as soon as possible. One step for which we, as citizens, are responsible is making sure that our politicians are qualified for their tasks.

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.