THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.
“Differentiation of labour and interdependence of society is reliant on consistent and predictable authorities to thrive” — Durkheim
“Many hands make light work” is an old adage both familiar and comforting. One feels that if things get out of hand we can just throw more resources at the problem and it will suffice. However, we have made it harder on ourselves in three distinct ways, all of which are relevant to planning and programs in the public sector:
- by not always recognising the importance of interdependence and the need to ensure the stability and prosperity of our community as a necessary precondition to the success of the individuals therein;
- by increasingly making it harder for people to gain knowledge, skills and adaptability to ensure those “many hands” are able to respond to the work required and not trapped into social servitude; and
- by often failing to recognise whether we need a linear or exponential response in whatever we are doing, feeling secure in the busy-ness of many hands.
Specialisation is when a person goes very deep on a particular topic or skill. Over many millennia we have gotten to the point where we have developed extreme specialisation, supported through interdependence and stability, which gave us the ability to rapidly and increasingly evolve what we do and how we live. This resulted in increasingly complex social systems and structures bringing us to a point today where the pace of change has arguably outpaced our imagination. We see many people clinging to fixed process, inherited traditions, and romanticised notions of the past whilst we hurtle at an accelerating pace into the future. Many hands have certainly made light work, but new challenges have emerged as a result and it is more critical than ever that we reimagine our world and develop our resilience and adaptability to change, because change is the only constant moving forward.
One human can survive on their own for a while. A group can divide up the labour quite effectively and survive over generations, creating time for culture and play. But when we established cities and states around 6000 years ago, we started a level of unprecedented division of labour and specialisation beyond mere survival. When the majority of your time, energy and resources go into simply surviving, you are largely subject to forces outside your control and unable to justify spending time on other things. But when survival is taken care of (broadly speaking) it creates time for specialisation and perfecting your craft, as well as for leisure, sport, art, philosophy and other key areas of development and progress in society.
And yet, for all our progress, most people today have no capacity for anything beyond a modern form of mere survival, with many skating uncomfortably close to poverty on a regular basis. Our vulnerable have the greatest time impost put on them to justify why they should get support from the state, which also means no time to spend on improving one’s lot. How did we allow this to happen and how can we fix it?
I want to talk about interdependence. I think many people today have internalised the idea that they each make it on their own if they work hard enough, but it is only through the structure of an interdependent society that the opportunities to specialise and “make it” are even possible. This means recognising and having empathy for the fact that many more people are part of and relied upon for any one success than is acknowledged, and indeed sometimes the success of one person relies upon the disadvantage of others. Public servants must be attuned to this reality so that work done in the public sector contributes to a positive outcome for all society, not just for a few, and the net positive outcome is best served by understanding all the moving parts in any policy or program including the interdependence mapped out therein.
Back to interdependence. The era of cities itself was born on the back of an agricultural technology revolution that made food production far more efficient, creating surplus (which drove a need for record-keeping and greater proliferation of written language) and prosperity, with dramatic growth in specialisation of jobs. With greater specialisation came greater interdependence as it becomes in everyone’s best interests to play their part predictably. A simple example is a farmer needing her farming equipment to be reliable to make food, and the mechanic needs food production to be reliable for sustenance. Both rely on each other not just as customers, but to be successful and sustainable over time. Greater specialisation led to greater surplus as specialists continued to fine-tune their crafts for ever greater outcomes. Over time, an increasing number of people were not simply living day-to-day, but were able to plan ahead and learn how to deal with major disruptions to their existence. Hunters and gatherers are completely subject to the conditions they live in, with an impact on mortality, leisure activities largely fashioned around survival, small community size and the need to move around. With surplus came spare time and the ability to take greater control over one’s existence and build a type of systemic resilience to change.
So interdependence gave us greater stability, as a natural result of enlightened self-interest writ large where one’s own success is clearly aligned with the success of the community where one lives. However, although interdependence in smaller communities creates a kind of mutual understanding and appreciation, we have arguably lost this reciprocity and connectedness in larger cities today, ironically where interdependence is strongest. When you can’t understand intuitively the role that others play in your wellbeing, then you don’t naturally appreciate them, and disconnected self-interest creates a cost to the community. When community cohesion starts to decline, eventually individuals also decline, except the small percentage who can either move communities or who benefit, intentionally or not, on the back of others’ misfortune.
When you have no visibility of food production beyond the supermarket, then it becomes easier to just buy the cheapest milk, eggs or bread, even if the cheapest product is unsustainable or undermining more sustainably produced goods. When you have such a specialised job that you can’t connect what you do to any greater meaning, purpose or value, then it also becomes hard to feel valuable to society, or valued by others. We see this increasingly in highly specialised organisations like large companies, public sector agencies and cities, where the individual feels the dual pressure of being everything and nothing all at once.
Modern society has made it somewhat less intuitive to value others who contribute to your survival because survival is taken for granted for many, and competing in ones own specialisation has been extended to competing in everything without an appreciation of the necessary interdependence required for one to prosper. Competition is seen to be the opposite of cooperation, whereas a healthy sustainable society is both cooperative and competitive. One can cooperate on common goals and compete on divergent goals, thus making the best use of time and resources where interests align. Cooperative models seem to continually emerge in spite of economic models that assume simplistic punishment and incentive-based behaviours. We see various forms of “commons” where people pool their resources in anything from community gardens and ‘share economies’ to software development and science, because cooperation is part of who we are and what makes us such a successful species.
Increasing specialisation also created greater surplus and wealth, generating increasingly divergent and insular social classes with different levels of power and people becoming less connected to each other and with wealth overwhelmingly going to the few. This pressure between the benefits and issues of highly structured societies and which groups benefit has ebbed and flowed throughout our history but, generally speaking, my hypothesis is that when the benefits to the majority outweigh the issues for that majority, then you have stability. With stability, a lot can be overlooked, including at times gross abuses for a minority or the disempowered. However, if the balance tips too far the other way, then you get revolutions, secessions, political movements and myriad counter-movements. Unfortunately, many counter-movements limit themselves to replacing people rather than the structures that created the issues however, several of these counter-movements established some critical ideas that underpin modern society.
It is worth briefly touching upon the fact that specialisation and interdependence, which are critical for modern societies, both rely upon the ability for people to share, to learn, and to ensure that the increasingly diverse skills are able to evolve as the society evolves. Many hands only make light work when they know what they are doing and are heading in the right direction. Historically the leaps in technology, techniques and specialisation have been shared for others to build upon and continue to improve as we see in writings, trade, oral traditions and rituals throughout history. Gatekeepers naturally emerged to control access to or interpretations of knowledge through priests, academics, the ruling class or business class. Where gatekeepers grew too oppressive, communities would subdivide to rebalance the power differential, such a various Protestant groups, union movements and the more recent Open Source movements. In any case, access wasn’t just about the power of gatekeepers. The costs of publishing and distribution grew as societies grew, creating a call from the business class for “intellectual property” controls as financial mechanisms to offset these costs. The argument ran that because of the huge costs of production, business people needed to be incentivised to publish and distribute knowledge, though arguably we have always done so as a matter of survival and growth.
With the Internet suddenly came the possibility for massively distributed and free access to knowledge, where the cost of publishing, distribution and even the capability development required to understand and apply such knowledge was suddenly negligible. We created a universal, free and instant way to share knowledge, creating the opportunity for a compounding effect on our historic capacity for cumulative learning. This is worth taking a moment to consider. The technology simultaneously created an opportunity for compounding our cumulative learning whilst rendered the reasons for IP protections negligible (lowered costs of production and distribution) and yet we have seen a dramatic increase in knowledge protectionism.
Isn’t it to our collective benefit to have a well-educated community that can continue our trajectory of diversification and specialisation for the benefit of everyone? I love this recent story of a farmer who built from scratch an energy source for his home and village using books from the library. Open access to knowledge is a powerful tool for self-empowerment. Anyone can get access to myriad forms of consumer entertainment but our most valuable knowledge assets are often fiercely protected against general and free access, dampening our ability to learn and evolve. Consider publicly funded research and papers being behind education paywalls as a critical case in point, though it is starting to change. The increasing gap between the haves and have nots is surely symptomatic of the broader increasing gap between the empowered and disempowered, the makers and the consumers, those with knowledge and those without. Consumers are shaped by the tools and goods they have access to, and limited by their wealth and status. But makers can create the tools and goods they need, and can redefine wealth and status with a more active and able hand in shaping their own lives.
As a result of our specialisation, our interdependence and our cooperative/competitive systems, we have created greater complexity in society over time, usually accompanied with the ability to respond to greater complexity, complexity that is growing exponentially. The problem is that a lot of our solutions have only been linear responses to this exponential problem space, which is creating an exponential needs gap. The assumption that more hands will continue to make light work often ignores the need for sharing skills and knowledge, and often ignores where a genuinely transformative response is required. A small fire might be managed with buckets, but at some point of growth, adding more buckets becomes insufficient and new methods are required. Necessity breeds innovation and yet when did you last see real innovation in your organisation that didn’t boil down to simply more or larger buckets? Iteration is rarely a form of transformation, so it is important to always clearly understand the type of problem you are dealing with and whether the planned response needs to be linear or exponential. If the former, more buckets is probably fine. If the latter, every bucket is just a distraction from developing the necessary response.
So perhaps many hands make light work for a while, but many minds would achieve exponentially more.