Democracy and the dark forces of time and ignorance

Posted on May 16th, 2016 by Mark Matthews

In a guest blog, our new Associate Fellow, Dr Mark Matthews, examines the use of evidence in governance and questions the use of “business-like public management methods”.


The aim of my contributions to the Crick Centre will be to contribute to re-balancing a disconnect between an assumed ideal state of ample and robust evidence used as a basis for policy decisions and the hard reality of the need to make decisions quickly when only sparse, ambiguous and confusing evidence is available. This assumed ideal state is also linked to a reliance on ‘business like’ public management methods in governance – a stance that further exacerbates this disconnect.

Governments have a distinctive role in handling the uncertainties and risks that markets and businesses (and indeed civil society) cannot handle. When the economist John Maynard Keynes stressed that ‘the social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future’ he emphasised an aspect of governance that has, unfortunately, been somewhat swamped by the contemporary adoption of ‘business like’ practices associated with the current public management ethos. This ethos relies on the extensive use of targets, performance milestones and a strong emphasis on public relations to frame and communicate what governments are doing. Businesses and markets do not need to cope with the really major uncertainties and risks (e.g. pandemics and terrorism) precisely because these are what governments’ handle. As a result, managerialism in governance tries to apply methods that are unable to cope with the much greater exposure to uncertainty and risk that characterise key government responsibilities.

This misalignment encourages the public sector to apply a spurious precision to the architecture of, and modes of delivering, interventions – to define targets and milestones that gloss over the substantive uncertainties and quantifiable risks faced. This spurious precision can, in turn, amplify the potential for nasty surprises in public policy by downplaying the importance of learning and adaptation in interventions (policy as discovery) and over-playing the importance of doggedly sticking to the spurious precision used to define interventions (policy as compliance). The familiar results of this failure to learn and adapt – to treat policy and strategy as compliance rather than discovery – are major cost overruns, wasted public expenditure and amplified public debt.

The ways in which ‘business-like’ governance operates also tends to prioritise the value of ‘robust evidence’ as the basis for good governance – and tends to downplay or even denigrate the importance of subjective judgment in the political process. There are major problems with this stance. Firstly, subjective judgment linked to conjectures and speculation about the future is critical to coping with uncertainties and risks in public policy. Judgment allows us to think beyond the limits of available evidence and is also the basis for framing the hypotheses via which we can identify the ‘weak signals’ of emerging problems. As in clinical practice, judgment is also important in calibrating the distinctive complexities of individual cases against the broader statistical evidence. Decisions that ignore this specific-against-general calibration are more likely to be flawed (and reflected in false negative and false positive diagnostic conclusions). Secondly, many aspects of evidence-based policymaking are subject to the double hermeneutic – once those whose behavior governments seek to change can understand what is being done to them and why then they are in a position learn and adapt in ways that cause the evidence upon which an intervention is based to become untrue.

Consequently, an uncritical reliance on evidence-based policymaking risks engendering a ‘detective work’ focus (seeking to attain legalistic levels of ‘proof’ of cause and effect after a crime has been committed and with ample time to investigate) rather than an ‘intelligence work’ focus – where ‘proof’ of cause and effect is less important than providing timely advice on what to do in order to limit or stop nasty things that may happen (by reducing the odds that they will happen). As experience demonstrates, applying the legalistic ‘proof’ narrative to intelligence (to shape public opinion) is inherently problematic.

Image courtesy of Arctic Wolves via Flickr

One way of thinking about the challenge of transitioning from ‘policy as compliance’ to ‘policy as discovery’ is to consider the ‘tug of war’ that takes place within the mammalian brain. The left hemisphere sets up rapid decision rules based on patterns learned from experience and ignores the details of sensory data (in order to react as quickly as possible in the face of opportunities and risks). The right hemisphere scrutinises the details ignored by the left hemisphere in order to try and identify novel features – driving learning that may lead to the left hemisphere’s rules for ignoring details being updated. Imbalances in this creative tension can lead to an excessive interest in details and data at the expense of using the ‘short cut’ judgment-based rules that allow rapid pattern recognition and associated decision making – especially useful in identifying and responding to threats.  From this perspective, the evidence-based policymaking stance risks too excessive a focus on scrutiny of the details of data relative to the use of rapid response rules and also lacks a strong functional link to the mechanisms via which these rapid response rules evolve through learning-by-doing.

My work will involve raising public awareness of the role of governments as uncertainty and risk managers of last resort and disseminating information on the limitations (indeed risks) of the ways in which ‘good governance’ is currently framed as a ‘business-like’ endeavour. Potential solutions I am currently exploring via collaborative work involve ways of explicitly framing policy interventions as hypotheses being tested via implementation. These hypothesis tests commence with ‘starting odds’ based on the evidence used to design interventions and these odds are then updated as an intervention is rolled out – allowing for learning and adaptation. This odds-based approach does not try to assume away the pervasive nature of uncertainty and risk in governance. It also provides a basis for strengthened public participation in the public policy by enabling new policy ideas, framed as testable hypotheses, to be fed into the policy cycle – a way of democratising policy innovation.

My future blogs will explore particular aspects of this developing agenda. The initial work on these issues is covered in my forthcoming book: Transformational public policy: a new strategy for coping with uncertainty and risk. Routledge, Studies in governance and public policy series. (



M Matthews pic

Mark Matthews works as a strategy advisor to governments, universities and non-profit organisations. He has worked both as an academic and as a management consultant specialising in public policy. He has additional experience in heading-up a government-funded policy unit located within a major university.

His current research focuses on governments’ distinctive role as uncertainty and risk manager of ‘last resort’ and the implications of this role for public sector reform. His contributions to the Crick Centre will focus on ways of improving public understanding of governments’ critically important role in handling the uncertainties and risks that markets and businesses cannot handle – and the specific implications for our understanding of strengths and weaknesses in political judgment.

Mark’s major qualifications include a B.A. (Hons) in Geography, an MSc. in Science, Technology and Industrialisation and a Doctorate (D.Phil) in Science and Technology policy, all from the University of Sussex, UK.  He is the author of Transformational Public Policy: A New Strategy for Coping with Uncertainty and Risk. Routledge: Studies in Governance and Public Policy (to be published in July 2016).



This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog email us at

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