Published on February 13, 2014

A valentine’s thesis: Power in Doubt

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

Valentine’s day is upon us, and it’s a time when the mind flits back to loves of years gone by.  I once had a passionate (and somewhat tumultuous) relationship with my PhD research – and last week Geoff Mulgan persuaded me that enough water had passed under the bridge for me to commit the ultimate betrayal of a complex academic study: summarise it.

My dissertation, entitled “Power in Doubt” (University of Cambridge, 2009), was a social anthropological study of aid donors and the Government of Indonesia, exploring the tensions, conflicts and struggles between and within these different groups.  This may sound like an idiosyncratic topic, but the more distance I get from this work (and the more of the nuancing and detail I forget!) – the more clearly I can see the potential take-aways for those interested in policy-making, power and the politics of institutions:

  • Power isn’t about knowledge – it’s about doubt.  The questions that people ask themselves – and ask of each other – are more influential on power relationships than what people actually know.
  • In politically sensitive situations, it can be useful to actively not-know about certain things.  By not-knowing, and making it clear that things are not your business – you can frame yourself as a neutral player without vested interests.  From that position it’s easier to work around conflicts and manoeuvre the conflicts themselves to get ahead of your rivals.
  • Resolving bureaucratic problems is often like a game of Tetris:  You have to get the different pieces of the puzzle (rules; precedents; structures or whatever) to slot together without changing the shape of the blocks themselves.  This means flipping the blocks around and changing the way you look at them – but not ‘bending the rules’.  Everytime you slot a piece of the puzzle into place, you change the shape of the gaps that you are slotting things into next time.
  • It often seems like ‘process’ in institutions goes round in circles in bureaucracies – slowing things down and dealing with the same problem again and again.  But actually it is more like a wheel, which constantly moves over different political ground.  Dealing with the same problem with a new group of people or at a new time changes the way that the issues are seen and the kinds of solutions that are possible.
  •  There are four key strategies (often overlapping) for dealing with institutional problems:
  1. Open out.  Ask more people; check with more precedents and with more rules and regulations.
  2. Close down.  Reduce the number of people involved; and reduce the number of precedents, rules and regulations that are relevant.
  3. Change the frame.  Interpret the problem differently so you have more room for manoeuvre.  For example, by making an argument that the rules really mean one thing rather than another – or that a precedent frees you up to do something.
  4. Change the problem.  Argue that the ‘real’ problem is not the one you originally thought you were dealing with, but a higher order or different class of problem – which means that a whole different set of opportunities and threats apply.
  • Of these four strategies, it’s number 3 – changing the frame – which has most potency.  To find a solution that sticks you usually need to have a strong interpretive element – forging an argument for why something is this way and not the other; why it will work and is better than the alternatives.  Opening things up (with more people, more precedents, more rules or whatever) tends to be politically cheaper than closing them down – and the most experienced officials will always have one eye on the interpretive work that needs to be done to translate an open process into a resilient decision.

There are some important implications here for those interested in opening up policy processes, and involving citizens in decision-making.  I think we may have been mistaken in thinking that the barriers to more inclusive policymaking revolve around getting more open processes to happen in the first place.

Perhaps it’s not the opening up that’s the problem – it’s knowing what to do afterwards.  Making a success of more inclusive processes means having the capacity to turn the multiple questions, interpretations and tensions that will be thrown up into stronger, better policy outcomes.  It means turning doubt into power – and I think we haven’t paid enough attention to the dilemmas this involves for policymakers and citizens alike.

So that’s the potted version.  If you are sad and lonely enough this valentine’s day to tackle the big kahuna, it’s here.

Leave a Reply