Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison

I’ve had a really intellectually stimulating week, in particular thanks to a couple of sessions at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy on public administration in New Zealand and on the Value of Data, and great conversations with people like Anouk Ruhaak and Alek Tarkowski. I’ve also made a bunch of progress on more organisational things, in particular in preparation for Jonathan starting as our new Advocacy and Campaign Director next week, and our offsite day on Wednesday.

The bigger picture

Last weekend, I read the paper Asymptotic burnout and homeostatic awakening: a possible solution to the Fermi paradox? by Michael Wong and Stuart Bartlett, which has stayed with me all week. It provides a theoretical underpinning and explanation for the state of the world we find ourselves in now (that late stage capitalism feeling that we’re racing too fast towards a catastrophic finish line), based on superlinear scaling that arises from increased network sizes. It shows there’s an inevitable point at which civilisations can’t innovate their way out of exponential increases in resource requirements. It posits an exit ramp towards homeostatic equilibrium (living within our physical/energy constraints). And it argues that we haven’t come across aliens because the only civilisations that survive that critical point are those that decide that growth shouldn’t be their goal after all.

I think one reason this gave me new energy is that it reassured me that aiming for homeostatic equilibrium isn’t an ideological position, but a civilisational survival instinct. And it underlined to me the importance of new ways of working together, and of governing, in the future world we must shape for ourselves. It set the work we do here in a larger context of finding new ways to organise and coordinate human activity at a smaller scale, within our means.

Government governance

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy’s brown bag lunch this week featured another of their affiliated researchers Rodney Scott, talking about how New Zealand’s public administration has structured and restructured itself over time. He talked specifically about the Public Service Act 2020 which consolidated many of the recent changes to move away from public servants being organised around hierarchies and markets and towards them being organised in networks (with aligned goals) and clans (with a shared sense of social identity) (see William Ouchi’s Markets, Bureaucracies, and Clans). This reminded me a lot of the kinds of organisational changes advocated for by fans of digital transformation, and our own community-orientation.

He also talked about a shift from consequentialist, deontological or justice-based ethics, and towards virtue and care ethics, with a focus on public servants adhering to a set of values and principles, and having authority to not just make decisions for the good of everyone but for the good of individuals, according to their needs. He said that New Zealanders weren’t seen as clients (of a paternalistic state), nor customers (choosing between public services), but as citizens who themselves contribute to society.

There was a lot more in his talk that I won’t be able to do justice to. He is aiming to write a book, so if you are into thinking about how the public sector should work, keep your eyes open for that. I don’t know whether New Zealand’s approach is one that could ever be adopted by the UK government – certainly not under its current masters, and perhaps not in any case given differences in scale – but it seemed aligned with what we need to do to achieve the homeostatic equilibrium described by Wong and Bartlett.

Collective, participatory, community decisions

It also played into a conversation I had with Anouk about how different communities make governance decisions differently. As a theoretical example, one community might hold a moot in which anyone can participate; in another, the norm might be for a panel of knowledgeable elders to make a decision; in another it will be a (hopefully) benevolent chief. As we push for collective data governance, to what extent do we care which forms of decision making individual communities decide are acceptable?

This made me think about the point Milly often made to me, that from her perspective democracy is not the only valid governance model for a nation. And a point Tim has raised with me asking about the distinction between collective and participatory data governance. Clearly there are multiple ways of reaching collective decisions (as in decisions that affect whole communities), but they involve varying levels of participation by the members of that community.

My current position is:

  1. I believe that many (but not all) decisions about data should be made at the (affected) community level rather than at the individual level. This is what I mean by collective data governance.
  2. I believe that many (but not all) of those decisions should involve the members of the community in decision making, and the closer to the top end of Arnstein’s ladder of participation the better. This is what I mean by participatory data governance.

Collective and participatory data governance plainly overlap, but it is possible to have collective data governance that isn’t participatory (such as when a selected fiduciary or tribal chief makes decisions on behalf of a community).

Conversations with Catherine Stihler and Alek Tarkowski have also left me thinking about what “community” really means, both from the perspective of community-level data governance and, more pragmatically, about the communities we build as organisations. The Wikipedia article on communitarianism pointed me to a good definition from Amitai Etzioni, that communities have two characteristics (my emphasis):

first, a web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often crisscross and reinforce one another (as opposed to one-on-one or chain-like individual relationships); and second, a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings, and a shared history and identity – in short, a particular culture.

Perhaps we should start a glossary on the website!

Valuing data

The final discussion that I’ll mention from this week was again at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, which held an informal roundtable on the Value of Data. The thing the discussion really clarified for me was that what’s meant by “the value of data” is very different depending on how you are intending to use that information.

Often the value of data is being used to make an investment decision, whether it’s deciding whether to publish data openly, or to improve its granularity, quality or timeliness. In these cases we rarely need to care about the absolute value of data, but rather its relative one: what difference will it make if the investment is made, and is it worth it? And the challenge there is that changing the utility of or access to data can have very hard-to-predict and hard-to-put-a-price-on consequences, both good and bad, both economic and social.

A funding prospectus

Aside from these philosophical explorations, I’ve also been working on our funding strategy, looking both at potential funders and what we could ask them to fund.

Tim suggested putting together a funding prospectus and I ran with it, creating lists of top-line descriptions of potential projects at £7.5k, £25k, £50k, £100k, £200k and £500k price points, ranging from a few months to three years in duration, fitting into the four strands of changing the narrative, changing organisational practice, changing public policy, and building the community.

Next week

With Jonathan joining this week, on Wednesday we have our first strategy day. I’m sure next week’s weeknotes will be filled with details on that! If you’re interested enough to read these weeknotes, and you happen to be in London, we’re going to be at the Three Kings pub in Clerkenwell between 17:00-18:30 on Wednesday 25th May – it would be lovely to see you there!