Tag Archives: European Commission

Policy hackers: three movers and shakers of governance

Last week I had the good fortune of meeting three public servants of three different countries, each with a very high intellectual profile. Each of them is a point of reference in his or her field.

On Wednesday I was with Geoff Mulgan, British, founder of Demos, CEO at the Young Foundation, appointed to lead NESTA. He comes from a communication background. In the UK he is a star, having served in top posts under the Blair administration; and it seems he is about to becom one in Europe, too, because his voice is heard with attention in Bruxelles on the issue of social innovation, just as the EU is making investment decisions in this field. He is committed to designing Prime Minister Cameron’s Big Society – a controversial, yet carefully studied model. That’s not surprising, because it is the only one that promises a solution for defending the European welfare state in a globalized, finance-dominated world..

That same evening I had dinner with Fabrizio Barca, Italian, director general of the Ministry of the Economy and advisor to the European Commission for the reform of regional policy. He comes from an economics background. He got to be in government coming from Banca d’Italia, together with Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (Ciampi is possibly the best statesman in the history of Italy after unity: a partisan turned central banker turned Prime Minister and then Minister of Treasury, who then went on to be one of the most popular Presidents ever). Ciampi and Barca shared an exceptional experience of institution building, recruiting a group of technicians with international experience to work on the issue of development of lagging Mezzogiorno. The result was the National Strategic Framework, the smartest, noblest policy document I have ever read. Fabrizio has an incredibly wide strategic outlook in which he subsumes everything from scientific papers to policy documents and his own conversations with civil society leaders, and is ultrafast (he answers his mail in minutes, and his colleagues say it is almost impossible to stay ahead of him). He is a leading authority on the issue of economic development.

I spent Thursday with Beth Noveck, American, founder of Peer to Patent, former deputy CTO at the White House, about to start a new appointment with the British government on OpenGov. She comes from a law background. Of the three, Beth is the one I feel I know best (we have been in conversation for a year, and she helped me with my book), and the one I am closest to in terms of interests. We both care about the collaborations between citizens and public authorities, and she is a world class expert in this field. Unlike the other two, she is above all an academic.

My take home from meeting these people is the usual one, always worth repeating: I have still much, much, much to learn. And learn I will.

Policy hackers: tre protagonisti dell’azione di governo

La settimana scorsa ho avuto una fortuna straordinaria: incontrare tre servitori dello Stato (anzi degli Stati, visto che parliamo di tre paesi diversi) dal profilo intellettuale molto alto. Ciascuno di loro è un punto di riferimento nel proprio campo.

Mercoledì ero con Geoff Mulgan, inglese, fondatore di Demos, CEO di Young Foundation, in procinto di andare a dirigere il prestigioso NESTA. Viene da studi di comunicazione. Nel Regno Unito è abbondantemente una star, avendo ricoperto incarichi di rilievo nel governo Blair); e mi pare che lo stia diventando anche nel resto d’Europa, perché la sua è una voce molto ascoltata a Bruxelles in tema di innovazione sociale proprio nel momento in cui l’Europa sta decidendo di investire sul tema. È impegnato nella progettazione della Big Society del primo ministro Cameron, modello controverso ma studiato con attenzione da tutto il continente – anche perché è l’unico che aggredisce esplicitamente il tema della difesa del welfare in un mondo finanziarizzato e globalizzato. .

La sera dello stesso giorno ho cenato con Fabrizio Barca, italiano, direttore generale del ministero dell’Economia e consigliere della Commissione Europea per la riforma della politica regionale. Viene da studi di economia. Negli anni Novanta dirige il servizio studi di Bankitalia: quando Carlo Azeglio Ciampi lascia la Banca per diventare ministro del Tesoro lo porta con sè. Insieme danno vita a una straordinaria avventura di institution building, reclutando un nucleo di tecnici di livello internazionale e mettendoli al lavoro sul tema dello sviluppo del Mezzogiorno. Il risultato è il Quadro Strategico Nazionale, il documento di policy più intelligente e nobile che abbia mai letto. Fabrizio ha una visione strategica molto ampia in cui integra di tutto, dalla letteratura scientifica ai rapporti governativi e alle discussioni con i leaders della società civile), ed è molto veloce nell’interazione (risponde alle mail in un minuto o due, e i suoi collaboratori raccontano che quasi nessuno riesce a stargli dietro). È un’autorità internazionale sul tema dello sviluppo.

Giovedì ho passato la giornata con Beth Noveck, americana, fondatrice di Peer to Patent, ex vice CTO alla Casa Bianca, in procinto di assumere un incarico nel governo britannico in tema Open Government. Viene da studi di diritto. Beth è quella che conosco meglio (ci scambiamo pareri da un anno, e ha collaborato al mio libro), ed è anche quella che sento più vicina come interessi: il suo campo è lo stesso in cui mi muovo io, la collaborazione tra governo e cittadini, di cui è un’esperta di classe mondiale. È l’unica dei tre ad essere soprattutto un’accademica.

La conclusione dei tre incontri è scontata, ma fa sempre bene ripeterla: ho ancora tanto, ma tanto, ma tanto da imparare. Imparerò.

On social innovation (and the end of the world as we know it)

In the last year, as I took part in a Council of Europe workgroup that tries to make sense of some emergent phenomena in the economy, I got the idea that social innovation is really, really important. Certainly important enough to curve the mental space I inhabit: whatever I do I seem get more and more entangled into it. The latest news – though not the last, I have a feeling – is that the Young Foundation, a British think tank close to the European Commission’s President Barroso and the single most active organization on the social innovation front, has enrolled me for the advisory board of the new Social Innovation Initiative for Europe. The projects’s objective is to create a social innovation community hub that, among other things, will provide input into the design of a new European social innovation fund.

European funds are large scale financial instruments for public policy. They are measured in hundreds of millions of euro, if not billions. Their allocation criteria among and within member states are the object of thorough negotiations, led by the highest ranking European public officials. The Commission does not design new funds every day: clearly, someone at the top thinks this is a very important matter.

From my vantage point as a Council of Europe advisor it is not hard to figure out what’s going on. The representative of the States in our group are worried silly: the welfare state, keystone of the European social model and staple ingredient of the Old Continent’s humanized version of capitalism, is crumbling before an irreversible fiscal crisis. No one believes the current level of public service provision is defensible within the current model. And no, it can’t be put down to ineffective management. We are not talking about Italy or Greece here: the most worried people I talked to come from advanced welfare countries like Austria or Norway, in which the public would never accept a retreat from the current service level – a retreat that, nevertheless, is coming.

Interestingly, though, no one is talking about privatization. We learned a lesson in the 80s, and that is that privatized public services are not necessarily any cheaper than those directly provided by the State. There are many reasons for this, and an important one is that the private for-profit sector wants to, well, make a profit. And that means high margins: if they are not there, private business is simply not interested. Here’s where social innovators gets to be given a chance; their blend of social economy (i.e. weak orientation to profit) and disruptive innovation borrowed from their Silicon Valley brethren is the only candidate for providing solution to turn public services around the way Wikipedia did with encyclopedia writing, defending the level of service while driving costs way down.

It does not take a genius to figure out where this is going. It leads to public services that are redesigned from the ground up, and that will look nothing like what we are used to. School? YouTube videos (Khan Academy style) instead of teachers in classrooms. Health care? Online fora instead of queing up at your local doctor for most less serious conditions. University? A badge system for informal learning on the open web instead of degrees (the Mozilla Foundation is working on it already). Policy design? Wikicracies instead of professional weberian bureaucracies. It’s safe to predict that the transition to such a scenario will be problematic, and it will imply very many people who are working in the public sector becoming — to put it bluntly — completely useless, because we can’t use what they can do and they can’t do what we need done.

The fund that the European Commission is designing can address at best half the problem; enabling social innovators to rethink radically public services. The other half is to make sure that the social contract holds, and that scared, enraged Europeans do not take to the street to set fire to cars, ATMs or their slightly different-looking neighbours. For this we need a high level political leadership: the present system was conceived by giants like Bismarck (the pension system) and Lord Beveridge (modern welfare). Let’s hope we find comparably enlightened leaders for the current phase.