Why doesn't government have reservists?

It starts here

The role of government is going to change.  As individuals find it easier to collaborate and solve problems, traditional government structures will need to be reshaped and rewired. So how do we start this change?

The people’s pilot light

I first found myself thinking of the role of government as a “pilot light” at a Department for Communities and Local Government event on digital inclusion. Most government bodies are prone to consider themselves as somehow permanent but what would they be like if they got their collective heads around being only sometimes on? The pilot light on the boiler that hums quietly away, then sparks into life when things get a bit chilly.

That, of course, is very Keynsian and at the moment government is turning itself to full roar and bunging on all 4 rings on the gas cooker in an attempt to get some heat back into the economy.

What is interesting though is how we habitually structure most government on an assumption of permanence.  That means that when we need more government we struggle to find the capacity and when we need less we are clumsy at shrinking, often reluctant to scale it back and put the excess capacity to useful work elsewhere.

32nd Birmingham and District Leisure and Tourism Light Foot (reserve)

This is why I think government needs reservists.  In the good times these people will be working happily in private industry, training a couple of weeks of the year with government oppos, creating links and bridges that wouldn’t otherwise exist, speeding up the modernisation of government by sharing new ideas and ways of working.

Of course social/private firms and the third sector already provide contractual spare capacity for government.  – I’m wondering if it makes sense to create some stronger culture of treating government as something that gets deployed where and when it is needed.

Rehydrate in case of emergency.

We need to create the core notion of government that grows and shrinks depending on the task in hand.  This habit will be key to responding to self organising citizens.  Why clean a street if the people who live there use some of their combined social capital to keep it clean for themselves? Often it’s simply because we planned to clean it, it’s our job – what are they doing cleaning it anyway!

This is not a complete answer, nor a wholly formed thought, so help me here please.  How do we re-structure government to respond to widespread self organising citizens?

(image “It starts here” from Mikey G Ottowa.)


  1. Dave Briggs says:

    Great thinking, Nick, and a truly lovely idea. Territorial Civil Servants?

    There is no doubt that there are a number of civically minded people in the private and third sectors who have a sufficiently strong interest in government – and specifically *good* government – that they would be willing to make themselves available when required.

    You hit it on the head when you mentioned culture, though. To bring in the reservists, those in charge have to be able to spot that they haven’t the ability or experience to get things done.

    These are dangerous, exciting times though, where I think change is genuinely possible. Looking at the news this morning: companies folding, violence in the middle east. Same problems we have faced before, where previous attempts at solving them have clearly failed. Maybe it’s time for some new thinking.

  2. I like this…a lot. Like all good ideas it stands on creative shoulders. It reminds me of the enduring relationship that\’s evolved between academic astronomers and a global network of amateur astronomers who\’ve fed them data for leading edge findings. Broadcasting is strengthening its marriage with narrowcasting. For decades amateur ornithologists have fed one of the most robust data bases on bird behaviour in the world. My step-father used to despair that fishery protection agencies and water companies wouldn\’t make the same connection with ordinary fishermen – despite the ubiquity of that pastime.

    Why? Knowing why such symbiotic (and commensal – learning) relationships will and won\’t happen is really important. Government keeps talking about citizenship, participation and empowerment and yet – for reasons I think I might understand but not necessarily agree – professional childcare agencies can\’t agree how to draw neighbours into their work getting risk to children (or anyone else vulnerable, in our lonely society) onto the radar. Something to do with distrust of mass opinion? The police strive to draw on community reporting and involvement (compare community engagement with the police in Handsworth in 1985 and 2005. An immense shift I saw for myself as police sought to establish the truth or falsity of the toxic rumour that had so split Asians and ACs over the \”story\” of a raped girl).

    Crises help. The second world war saw the regular army inundated by new and unfamiliar expertise able to wear down and infiltrate the caste barriers of professional military culture – not without tension. The best \’marriages\’ involved mutual respect for what the professionals (some of them) really did know about war and reciprocated respect for what the \’amateurs\’ could contribute. Getting such marriages to work seems to require a mix of political will and insistence and the good will and open character of some of those who ended up in happy collaboration.

    Crisis helps. So does personality and that elusive thing we call \’leadership\’ – but which is also excitement, altruism, the sheer joy of helping others without external reward or imperative. The ground is as fertile as its ever been for your thinking, Nick! I suspect it\’s happening already but those involved are staying quiet about it and getting on with it – in part to avoid the attention of those special interests who may find your thinking threatening to their jobs, status and self-esteem. The will and wish for territorial civil servants is strong but I\’m sure that I\’m not the only one who wouldn\’t volunteer to order. It has to crystallise. There needs to be some luck as well as intention. Fingers crossed. (:)) S

  3. Ed Moore says:

    Interesting. I wonder what the optimum balance between volunteer / selected would be – e.g. should it be like a jury service where a selection of essentially random people are called together to perform a service, or more like applying to be a magistrate where an existing desire to serve the local area is put through a selection process designed to let people with a particular skillset or approach to succeed.

  4. ..and this has worked well with citizen juries and local government can use its scrutiny powers to invite involvement. It needs the will and the energy and when it works it’s exciting and energising and useful and fulfilling. These possibilities like the ‘the citizen’s call to action’ (now available in law) can spread. It does need people like Nick to prompt and chivvy and encourage.

  5. Nick Booth says:

    I like your thinking. Much is already in place to encourage such action. I think the core idea is that government gets very good at thinking about where it needs to be deployed and what size it needs to be when it gets there. Such thinking will prevent it from stifling or duplicating citizen organisation. To be any good at that it needs to be more flexibly resourced than now – not just to find more when it needs it but to be smaller when that’s right.

  6. Great thinking Nick. As a civil servant staring at the end of his tour of duty, I’ve often compared my time in Whitehall to National Service. Lots of capable people in a fairly unreal environment who would benefit themselves and government by experiencing life on the outside as much as calling up the reservists at times of crisis.

  7. I like the idea and especially the philosophy behind it but is there not a problem of organisational costs – much like in “The Mythical Man Month”. Adding extra people to a project in the short-term is counter-productive as the management costs of smoothly integrating the new people in outweigh the benefit of the extra people-hours. The armed forces, whose example you use as inspiration, relieve the problem by having a very rigorous command-and-control structure, rigorous training and fixed roles, but even then it doesn’t go completely away.

    That said I like the idea behind it, I’m just not sure if dropping people in and out of Government on short-term basis is the right implementation. Maybe a chat to people in the armed forces who have worked with deploying reservists could be quite illuminating?

  8. It\’s a lovely idea. I could imagine it working on Ursula Le Guin\’s planet of Anarres ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dispossessed ) and I wish it would work here.

    The doubts that spring to mind include (but are not limited to);

    – the fact that \”we\” don\’t structure government at all, let alone decide whether it grows or (ahistorical idea) shrinks

    – the nature of hierarchical institutions to make their own existence the prime directive (also applies to the Third Sector, sadly)

    – the tendency of some current \’outsourcing\’ to undermine independent voices ( http://www.independentaction.net/ )

    As an uncomfortable footnote, history might suggest that army territorials have more usually been used to put down local or colonial populations that have tried to \’empower\’ themselves (from the Luddites onwards). I hope there aren\’t any lessons there about \”how government will respond to widespread self organising citizens\”.

  9. Jon Bounds says:

    You know what, Nick? This isn’t a question but a prediction.

    The only question is whether government will work out how to harness or will “the people” simply take over and do it for themselves (cf mysociety etc)?

  10. Matthew Cain says:

    There’s an inevitability about the permanence of government. It’s not a failing of civil servants but of all large institutions that they create reasons to exist and activity to justify that existence.

    The concept is a great one – but it’s really hard for organisations to justify their own demise.

  11. Clare White says:

    Other than government’s reluctance to shrink that has been pointed out, I see a barrier in mainstream society’s sense of community and the lack of trust between people, services etc.
    If this could be built up then I think this could work. If it wasn’t present then I think we’d see it collapse in debates about compulsion, laziness etc. What do you do with those who object? Do you accept that only a small percentage of people will enthusastically participate, or do you try to compel everyone to work towards your idea of what must be done? Perhaps you encourage everyone to participate in something, but accept that everyone has their own interpretation of the priorities.
    In Rwanda there is a custom that people go out and clean the streets on Sundays, called Umuganda (an article: http://allafrica.com/stories/200806030466.html). I’ve seen it presented as a sign of Rwanda’s unity or of its dictatorial leadership, depending on your point of view.
    The starting point might be to keep government out of it to a certain extent, but to build up the profile of the grassroots that do so much for our society and who have taken personal responsibility for some aspect of improvement. This happens all the time, but is often completely ignored and therefore many people only have the sense of isolation, conflict and suffering presented in the media. We can do this using the social web and by continuing the process of building connectivity online and offline.

  12. loulouk says:

    I think this is what litter picking groups do, community clean ups enabled, what Friends groups are for. They are our reservists. The people who used to pick up the slack when we simply couldn’t cope with the requirements put on our services.

    I suspect these will need to expand and multiply very much in the next few years if we are not, in some places, to disappear under a mound of litter as someone so eloquently put it on our local newspaper yesterday.

    Of course, interpreting it another way – here come the consultants. And we do not want that.

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