in Politics

Maslow for government

Nat Wei, the Government’s Big Society advisor, has an interesting blog which often highlights good Big Society examples. It now appears he’s rating them as well and recently introduced his ‘power rating’ (and thanks to Warren Hatter for highlighting it) which “seeks to express the increasing degree in which a platform or initiative takes power from those who currently possess it and puts it in the hands of citizens” giving it five ratings:

  1. does something good for citizens,
  2. shifts power, data, and opportunities closer to where citizens live, perhaps by reducing bureaucracy, enabling different providers to operate services, or using the web and other means to allow more direct access,
  3. seeks to harness cognitive surplus, presenting tasks and activities in more accessible ways by changing the way we think about them to appeal to our interests and passions,
  4. strengthens social capital (particularly the bridging kind) by encouraging peer to peer activity online and offline,
  5. finds ways to open its governance, funding, and surplus involving employees, members, and users using cooperative or other methods to create a strong sense of group ownership over the venture

Now, the language is not the best, even as someone who rather likes Clay Shirky’s concept of ‘cognitive surplus’ I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would attempt to use the phrase. But the principle is an interesting one.

I’ve recently been talking to a friend about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and it was impossible to see this and not make a connection.

Despite some critics, the principle of Maslow is common-sense. Some needs take priority over others: you need air to breath and food to eat. Once you have them you can start thinking about shelter and security. Then onto more fulfilling needs like friends, family and self-development. Even blogging, if that’s a need…

But when you tie that back to government, it’s rooted firmly at the bottom. We’ve all heard variations of “the first duty of government is…” Most often it involves protection or security.

To a degree that has to be right. For example, as a council we have certain statutory duties. We need to protect the vulnerable. We have to provide housing for those that cannot get it themselves. We have to provide education. Perhaps, though, we need to think more about how we help people with those less existential needs.

One of the criteria of the Wandsworth Challenge is that it should improve the quality of life of our residents. I’ve touched on the problem with this before, that people all have different opinions, and what enhances one persons quality of life might diminish another’s. We could plough lots of money into, say, a Wandsworth Opera Company, but that would offer little direct benefit to those who don’t like opera.

A Maslow for government, therefore, should address those crucial needs (care, education, housing) but then act as an enabler. Nat Wei may be on to something – and while the wording needs work – it really needs to a test before decisions are taken, not a rating afterwards.

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  1. Thanks for flagging this up James. Definitely worth thinking about and devising something for local use I think. Does the rating scale work in ascending or descending order? Are their weightings? The big ambiguity in (1), of course, is “how many?” and “which?” citizens have something “good” (by whose definition?) done for them. That’s all food for thought. Perhaps our 3rd sector colleagues in Wandsworth would like to work on this one as something more productive than endless talk about “compacts”?

    • Good questions! Ascending order (5 is best). The argument, I suppose, would be that higher up the scale the notion of doing ‘good’ becomes irrelevant because you are enabling residents to decide what they want to do themselves.

      As I said, Lord Wei’s wording could do with some refinement. He introduced it as something that he was “beta testing” which belies the geek in his thinking!