What works: getting to the land of ‘how’ – part 1

By Nicholas Gruen

Wednesday July 1, 2020


Government leaders understanding what they need to do when faced with impending issues is one thing. But here, in the first of a three-part series, Nicholas Gruen gets into the nitty-gritty of coming to terms with the ‘how’ of what needs to be done. 

It is impossible to remember, until one gets in the country … that they care about their experiment more than about making things work.” – John Maynard Keynes on Soviet Russia, to Lady Ottoline Morrell, May 2, 1928.1

The land of ‘what’ and the land of ‘how’

From at least the years of the ‘third way’ in the 1990s under Blair and Clinton, we’ve been hearing what governments need to do to address our various social problems. Again and again, ‘thought leaders’ tell us what we must do – move beyond one-size-fits-all services to ‘joined-up government’ to ensuring that programs do things ‘with’ people rather than ‘to’ them. Plausible as they are, these ideas have barely been tested. Because if they tell us what we have to do, we’ve scarcely learned how.

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At the outset there seemed to be a seductive straightforwardness to getting to how. As Bill Clinton put it “nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere”. The challenge was “to find out what works and scale it up”. For me, these words stand as a creation myth of the problem I want to address. They even show us original sin, because if you pay close attention there it is! Clinton suggests we learn how to solve our problems by learning a ‘what’ – what works – and then scaling it. Not a ‘how’!

And here we are, nearly three decades on. And despite numerous promising innovations in small scale programs, they all share the same fate. It’s hard to think of a single example of action to address social problems that’s started small and been ‘‘scaled’ as Clinton proposed. Yet despite endless inquiries into our failure to address social problems – for instance aboriginal or multi-generational disadvantage – and endless restructurings and resettings of policy in response, we’ve never got far. Peter Shergold lamented the problem in 2005.2 Yet despite a term as the nation’s chief public servant, he conceded in 2013 that the problem remains.3

This is the first instalment of a three-part essay, which itself is part of a larger project. In this article, I’ll set the stage showing the subtlety and depth of the problem. For, when it’s pointed out, we all understand that there’s a difference between ‘knowing what’ the rules of tennis or chess are, and ‘knowing how’ to play. My claim is that in all kinds of ways we insensibly confuse the two and so substitute ‘knowing what’ (or ‘knowing that’) and knowing-how. In this first part of this essay, I’ll show how this happens in our universities and the professions they teach. In the second, I’ll show how this occurs in government agencies and programs. The third part concludes with a look at recent initiatives like nudge units and What Works Centres that seek to foster greater ‘knowing how’ and innovation in government. The key to their success so far has been the way they bolt on to business-as-usual and, in so doing, improve it. This essay is written to try to articulate how they might envisage a more ambitious future.

From the foundations to the commanding heights

Our confusion in understanding the distinction between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ goes all the way back to our language itself. The lives we lead are built on a vast repertoire of tacit knowhow that we don’t – and indeed can’t – make fully explicit. Prosaic examples include anything taught by doing like riding a bike or kicking a football. But this stretches to skills you use all the time. Like those you’re using now – to help you interpret the strange squiggles your eyes are scanning while your brain converts them insensibly into meaning. These tacit skills are fundamental to making social and economic systems work, not least the judgements people make about what constitutes good work and what does not.

This issue is not discussed much in public administration or in economics, but one tradition has developed their ideas with close attention to it. As John Gray explains, Friedrich Hayek’s case for the indispensability of markets wasn’t just that they harnessed explicit local knowledge and expertise distributed throughout the economy.

It is the far more fundamental problem of the practical knowledge on which economic life depends being embodied in skills and habits, which change as society changes and which are rarely expressible in theoretical or technical terms.4

Hayek further intimated the prospect that English speakers were disadvantaged in attending to the distinction between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. The English language provides a more limited vocabulary for appreciating the distinction than many other European languages such as German. It was largely invisible to English speaking philosophy until Gilbert Ryle published on it in 1946.5 There’s much to be unpacked here. In the academy the status of ‘knowing that’ is far higher than ‘knowing how’. I expect this is particularly pronounced in the Anglosphere. Knowhow is often gained via learning-by-doing within an apprenticeship rather than via the discursive methods of traditional teaching. This apprenticeship tradition remains much stronger in Germanic and Northern European cultures than in the Anglosphere.6

The great economist, cyberneticist and organisational theorist Herbert Simon is one of the few English-speaking thinkers to foreground this distinction between ‘knowing what’ and ‘knowing how’.7 For him, the distinction marks a fault line: On one side lie the sciences; on the other the professions. Sciences are for knowing what is given and necessary in nature. By contrast, the professions, such as engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are for doing. They’re concerned “not with the necessary but with the contingent, not with how things are but with how they might be”.

In short, Simon concludes, the professions are all fundamentally about design – that is, with devising “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. This highlights the irony of a process that reached its apogee in the decades after WWII. As they sought to clothe themselves in the mantle of science the university faculties teaching the professions emptied their curricula of design content:

Engineering schools gradually became schools of physics and mathematics; medical schools became schools of biological science; business schools became schools of finite mathematics. The use of adjectives like “applied” concealed, but did not change, the fact. It simply meant that in the professional schools those topics were selected from mathematics and the natural sciences for emphasis which were thought to be most nearly relevant to professional practice. It did not mean that design continued to be taught, as distinguished from analysis.

Any economics graduate will appreciate Simon’s point. As he put it, “in terms of the prevailing norms, academic respectability calls for subject matter that is intellectually tough, analytic, formalisable, and teachable”. In Part Two I show these same confusions turning up in the world of work. There, the drivers are not only the greater prestige of ‘knowing that’ over ‘knowing how’ but also its greater ‘legibility’ to systems – particularly to those at the top.

Part 2 of this essay, discusses why ‘knowing how’ is much harder to govern, and so a much harder thing to deliver than ‘knowing what’ and Part 3 concluding with a discussion of new institutions to develop new know how in government.


  1. Skidelsky, Robert, 1994. John Maynard Keynes, vol. 2: The Economist as Savior 1920–1937 (New York: Allen Lane, p. 236.
  2. As Shergold put it:

If there were a single cultural predilection in the Australian Public Service that I could change, it would be the unspoken belief of many that contributing to the development of government policy is a higher order function – more prestigious, more influential, more exciting – than delivering results. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much of my career in line agencies, learning to deliver indigenous, employment, small business, and education programs that I react so strongly against this tendency.

Mendham, Tim, 2005. “The State of Project Management”, CIO Magazine, 1 Nov, at https://www.cio.com/article/3494549/the-state-of-project-management.html

3. As he put it in 2013:

Too much innovation remains at the margin of public administration. Opportunities are only half‐seized; new modes of service delivery begin and end their working lives as ‘demonstration projects’ or ‘pilots’, and creative solutions become progressively undermined by risk aversion and a plethora of bureaucratic guidelines.

Shergold, P. 2013 “My Hopes for a Public Service for the Future”, Australian Journal of Public Administration; March 2013, Vol. 72, Issue 1, p.7-13 at p. 7, also available at this link https://www.apsreview.gov.au/file/174/download?token=d5v23YKW. Note that it exists elsewhere. See for instance Savoie regarding Canada’s public service:

The ambitious know full well that the road to the top is through policy, generating ideas, managing the blame game, being visible in Ottawa circles, and central agencies, not through program management.

Donald J. Savoie “What Is Government Good At? A Canadian Answer” 2015.

4. Thus Hayek often quoted the great Alfred North Whitehead:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.

5. Here’s Hayek citing that article:

The almost complete loss of the original connotation of ‘can’ in English, where it can scarcely any longer be used in the infinitive form, is … an obstacle to the easy discussion of these problems …. If a German says Ich weiß, wie man Tennis spielt this does not necessarily imply that he knows how to play tennis, which a German would express by saying Ich kann Tennis spielen. In German the former phrase states the explicit knowledge of the rules of the game and may – if the speaker had made special motion studies – refer to the rules by which the skill of a player can be described, a skill which the speaker who claims to know these rules need not possess. German, in fact, has three terms for the English ‘to know’: wissen, corresponding to ‘know that’, kennen, corresponding to ‘be acquainted with’, and können, corresponding to ‘know-how’.

Hayek, F.A., 1962. “Rules, perception and intelligibility”, in Hayek, 2014. The Market And Other Orders, The collected works of F. A. Hayek, Volume XV, Bruce Caldwell (ed), pp 232-53 at p. 233.

6. In English speaking countries university-based know-ledge is the fulcrum of professional training. Apprenticeship based learning-by-doing typically supplements this only to the extent that the alternative would produce obvious dysfunction. Outside of lower status manual trades, in medicine, law and engineering, practice-based training is now merely part of the pathway from university into the workforce via internships.

7. For readers interested in economists, it was one of the things that drove him to dismiss profit maximisation as a good way to think about what business managers did. It might be ‘what’ they thought they did, but the moment you focused on how they did it you had to imagine them doing something more prosaic and grounded in their practice – which Simon called ‘satisficing’.

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