Getting to where the ideas are

Back in 1990 Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, famously remarked “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” I find this an interesting quotation in that it seems both provocative and a truism. I’ve been reminded of it recently when thinking both about what my colleagues here in the Cabinet Office are promoting in their work on open policy making and also as I’ve been reflecting on how I’ve approached engaging with external expertise myself in recent years.

One of the things I most enjoy about leading the Analysis and Insight team is the sheer range of topics, issues and challenges that I come across in a week. Given this breadth I have to be realistic and appreciate that there is no way I will be close to being the expert in everything the team covers and nor perhaps should I be. What is much more important is that I can readily access world class expertise and remain open to new ideas and approaches, no matter where they come from.

This week the MIT Sloan Management Review published interesting new research suggesting that employees with a diverse Twitter network — one that exposes them to people and ideas they don’t already know — tend to generate better ideas. Many Civil Servants, including myself, are only beginning to exploit the value of Twitter and other social media vehicles in their work. However, I already can’t imagine not having this as one of the tools I use to keep abreast of the latest thinking and new ideas across my team’s remit.

Of course there is also value in physical as well as virtual connections and I think we can always find new approaches here too. Back in 2013 when we took on the cross-government horizon scanning brief I knew that I had to rapidly get a grip on a much wider range of policy areas than I had previously worked on: areas like emerging technologies and resource scarcity were at that point new to me. Luckily at around the same time I was made aware of and successfully applied for the University of Cambridge’s Policy Fellowship. This gave me the opportunity to spend a week in Cambridge having many and varied discussions with leading academics, exploring the big new policy questions I was examining and provided invaluable insights and new connections as I took on these new responsibilities.

I have also been fortunate, over a number of years, to be the UK’s representative on the OECD Public Governance Committee - a forum that allows me to connect regularly with counterparts from over 30 countries from around the world. The challenges and opportunities we face in the UK are rarely unique and understanding how other countries have approached similar circumstances can be invaluable. The importance of being able to learn from other countries and to benchmark ourselves against them is a key driver of the team’s work on international indicators as Mark Lowcock outlined in his recent blog.

There’s always more that can be done in this space and I would love to hear from others - inside and outside of the Civil Service - about how they keep abreast of new ideas in their areas - please do drop any thoughts in the comments below.

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