Robin McAlpine: Different equals cleverer – a lesson for Scotland


CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says Scotland will reap the rewards if it dares to be different

THE following is quoted directly from Scientific American:

"It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, non-routine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way – yet the science shows that it does."

This message is one that Scotland – in all its decisions-making structures from the small business to the corporate headquarter, from the political party to the government expert working group – needs to start taking much more seriously. And campaigners for social change need to make the diversity argument not only on the basis of justice but of effectiveness.

Read more – Campaigners unveil 'Festival of Ideas' to coincide with SNP party conference in Glasgow

I don't want to spend the whole column explaining the science behind this. If you do a web search on the phrase "diverse groups make better decisions" you will find more information than you'll ever be able to read. I picked Scientific America only because as the longest continuously published magazine of any sort in the US, it will probably carry more weight than another opinion from another Scottish leftie.

But the basics are simple – if you create a decision-making body and then fill it with people with very similar perspectives and life experiences, everyone reinforces everyone else's pre-existing assumptions and no-one challenges them.

And if assumptions are not challenged, you simply don't know if they're true. You don't give time to other answers which are not part of the collective experience of the homogenous group. You don't create anything new or surprising because everyone involved has formed set opinions and it doesn't actually end up mattering if those opinions are correct or not.

Put 10 spooks hand-picked by Tony Blair's people in a room and they become convinced about weapons of mass destruction that don't exist. Put 10 bankers hand-picked by Gordon Brown's people in a room and they can see absolutely no risk to the economy in deregulating the banking sector.

Read more – Exclusive: SNP Depute candidate raises concerns charities may be “priced-out” of SNP conference

This is some of the most important social and psychological research that is being done right now. I've been following it with interest for a number of years. And its relevance to Scotland is acute.

Because as CommonSpace has been reporting all week, there are legitimate fears that the SNP conference is pricing out any voices which aren't backed by big money. The price of a fringe meeting or exhibition space has risen so rapidly that few social campaigns can really consider the cost.

Now, the SNP's official response has been that all those charities and campaigns can make private arrangements at other times of the year to talk in private to a minister. But from Common Weal's perspective, that's not why we go to party conferences. We're there to engage with the members. 

These are the biggest gatherings of politically interested people in Scotland and what delegates hear at these events can shape what they think and in turn what the party debates and discusses.

(Plus we all know that relying only on private meetings with a minister can be quite a good way to achieve complete invisibility…)

Read more – Exclusive: SNP HQ instructs politicians not to attend unofficial conference event amid price row

So what happens if SNP members can pick up all the pro-fracking literature in the world but not get anything on the case against? What happens if a large chunk of the conference venue is wholly commandeered by the airport lobby (as in Aberdeen last year) and those who raise concerns are excluded?

I know some of you are sick of me going on about what a bad, bad idea the Air Passenger Duty cut is but I'm afraid you're just going to have to bear with me. We can't find a mainstream newspaper in the country which will challenge what the airports say and endless repetition via the few channels through which we can actually get this message over is our only option.

So one more time – cutting APD will mean substantial cuts to Scottish public services and is likely to actually reduce the size of the Scottish economy. Yet despite this evidence the mainstream media, big business representation organisations, right wing think tanks and paid lobbyists are all in agreement that it should go ahead. If this isn't an example of homogenous group-think trumping effective decision-making, I don't know what is.

Common Weal is helping to organise an event across the river from the SNP conference to help organisations and campaigns who can't get a hearing at the main conference to at least have a chance of being heard by party activists.

They could hear about a Scottish national investment bank, land reform, divestment policies, public housing strategies, early years education campaigns, citizen's income, town centre regeneration, local democracy, lobbying transparency, LGBTI education, alternative economics and a host of other fascinating subjects. But as far as I can tell, none of these are on the agenda of the conference.

These are the biggest gatherings of politically interested people in Scotland and what delegates hear at these events can shape what they think and in turn what the party debates and discusses.

Interestingly, this is actually probably the hottest topic inside the SNP itself just now. I've been contacted by quite a few people who've been attending the deputy leadership hustings to give me their reactions. It's been interesting.

Because there are basically three positions on internal party democracy represented by the candidates. Angus Robertson is arguing that the system is working fine and participation is good. Alyn Smith is arguing that the structures and systems are fundamentally right but that they're not being used properly. And Chris McEleny and Tommy Sheppard are saying strongly that there is not enough party democracy and are putting forward different proposals to deal with it.

People are telling me that they know people who went in expecting to back Smith or Robertson but came out with their minds changed. It's not their performance – both are accomplished politicians and are handling hustings with skill. It's that next to no-one in the grassroots of the party thinks party democracy is even nearly right.

I find this particularly crazy. The SNP is absolutely packed with clever people who have experience of all aspects of life in Scotland. There is no subject I can think of where there is not substantial expertise among the membership. But none of this was exploited during the production of the party's Holyrood manifesto.

Had diversity and debate been the order of the day, I have zero doubt that it would have been a much better manifesto. For starters, no informed discussion could have led to the (let's just say) risky education policy experiment which is about to be imposed. If things go wrong, it's quite easy to see why that would be when no-one was consulted.

The importance of diversity in decision-making isn't a small issue. For decades we've been moving further and further towards an ideology of decision-making which emphasises 'expertise' and small, closed groups.

But there is one area where Scotland has taken at least a first step towards learning the lessons of the benefits of diversity. While perhaps not many of you have heard of it, there is a global initiative called the Open Government Programme. It is a partnership model where governments and civil society put together action plans to make government open, transparent and participative while driving out corruption and secrecy.

Because the UK is the nation state, it is the UK Government which produces the UK report – and it is as timid and largely meaningless as you'd expect. But the Scottish Government requested and won 'pioneer status'. 

This is a process where 20 'sub national' partners from around the world (regions, cities or, in Scotland's case, stateless nations) produce pioneering plans which are supposed to show the way forward for the more conservative and risk-averse nation states.

This is great news, a chance for Scotland to be really innovative. There is no limit to what Scotland could put in this plan – proper participatory democracy with 'mini-publics' and independent consultation processes, a citizens' revising chamber, commitments on open data and privacy, beneficiary audits where government openly documents who has benefited financially and in other ways from government decisions, a much better lobbying transparency system.

This could be really exciting. Scotland could become a world-leader in pioneering open, diverse government. In years to come Scientific America could be reporting on how Scotland showed that listening to the scientific research on diversity transformed government.

Read more – Ben Simmons: What is 'Open Government' and why should we care?

But there is an important caveat – the model is a partnership. If civil society doesn't come up with the big ideas, there is no point in blaming government. Common Weal is a very active participant in this process and we're running the primary citizen consultation event on Open Government. 

It's this Sunday in Glasgow and you're very welcome indeed to come along and input your very best ideas about how to create more open public sector in Scotland. Please do – every idea we hear will be fed back to government.

The importance of diversity in decision-making isn't a small issue. For decades we've been moving further and further towards an ideology of decision-making which emphasises 'expertise' and small, closed groups. Brexit has been seen as a reaction against this and many metropolitan liberals now routinely mock people who reject 'government by expert' as insufficiently evolved.

Ah, poor metropolitan liberals. What will happen when they discover that the consensus of the leading expert advice is that expert advice is not the best way to make decisions? Presumably their heads will explode in confusion.

For the rest of us, I think basically we all knew that half a dozen rich white men in a room was never really the best way to run things. Now we've got the evidence to prove it. So let's do something better.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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