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The Power of the Humble State

minute read

The Power of the Humble State

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As these new forms of power are emerging, it is vital that our key institutions, particularly the state, engage with them.

These "new forms of collaborative action … light up the sky like fireworks and we see a glimpse of the good society ahead of us… but these initiatives can’t be sustained or systematised and so we return to darkness. This is where we need the state – to help resource, legitimise and regulate in favour of these emerging collaborative and socially responsible organisations”.65

How can we update the architecture of the state itself? What kind of state is capable of challenging the potential opportunities of new power while mitigating its risks? 

But a narrow focus on the state as the only instrument for change or action has meant that our conception of power has been limited. Longevity and enduring change can last when it is embedded in empowered institutions outside of the state, rooted in communities. This is how change in our society can be sustained beyond a single government. The last Labour government achieved a lot, but after 12 years of Tory government what has endured? So much of the infrastructure such as Sure Start centres, was able to be swept away as the New Labour government failed to look beyond the state and consider how to establish an institutional legacy, owned by communities for its reforms. As politics becomes more populist and governments’ power bases less stable, the Left must develop an institutional legacy for its future programmes. 

If we are to create a different sort of society, we need a different sort of state, one which is capable of empowering institutions and organisations beyond itself. The state needs to act as a convenor, facilitator and custodian of changes that engage the energy and creativity of the wider society. To borrow a metaphor from Sue Goss’s Garden Mind,66 it needs to invest in the social and community infrastructure which will become the soil in which long-term change is embedded and will create the conditions that support people to flourish. Its job may be to identify problems, seed experiments, ensure outcomes are equal across the country, create opportunities for places to learn from each other and provide the necessary funding and support. On the ground its structures are likely to be more porous, more flexible and capable of providing an anchor role as the facilitator of change. 

This kind of state will need to become more adept at working not just with individuals, but also with community groups, local government, civil society and institutions. Rather than imposing policy solutions from the top, it will need to facilitate conversations, collaborative action and shared problem solving, creating the consent and democratic authority for change. As we explore in our chapter on public services, this means building in ways in which services can be codesigned and opportunities for users to provide feedback or make changes as ideas are implemented. As we explore in our chapters on localism and democracy, this means devolution of decision-making to the lowest appropriate level, such as local authorities and communities and experimenting with new forms of democratic practice.

Case Study: Universal Credit Survivors’ Group

The Universal Credit Survivors’ Group is a Facebook group that attempts to share some knowledge from the grassroots on how to navigate the system, by giving advice on what is allowed, the process of applying and shortcuts to help people navigate the system. It has over 67,000 members, growing by 2000 per month with 4 admins and 2 moderators and an average of 143 posts per day. This forum enables people to organise themselves and help each other by sharing information and advice. By assembling, they are increasing transparency of the system and thus increasing their own power to navigate it. 

Imagine if the government department responsible for the system not only consulted with users when they designed it, but also had an arrangement with the group where the people could send explicit feedback on their concerns and suggest changes…67

Cultural Reform of Whitehall 

Devolution of power requires a radical change in the current command and control culture of Whitehall. Rather than seeing government as a top-down hierarchy, it helps to see it as a whole system working horizontally in partnership across national and local governments and with community organisations and social institutions. Government at the centre needs to be in constant touch with how things are experienced on the ground and able to co-create policy solutions with those who are facing these challenges.

While there have been some experiments, for example around crowdsourcing policy and collective intelligence at the UK policy lab68, they tend to be ‘outcompeted’ by the pressure from ministers to ‘pull levers’ and ‘fix things’ and the strength of the dominant culture. So change has to come from political leaders as well as from civil servants.  

Assumptions about the effectiveness of command and control and about the reality of the levers that politicians try to pull, all need to be re-examined. Leadership models need to change. Government should consciously recruit for, develop and reward the skills and behaviours of systems leadership and collaboration and create spaces for learning alongside local government, business and the voluntary and community sector, where these models are better developed. While Whitehall struggles to provide examples of different forms of leadership and governance, interesting experiments are taking place in the Labour government of Wales, in Scotland and across local government. As we argue in the chapter on democratic change, a collaborative UK state would learn to treat the governments of the nations and local authorities as full partners in many of the most difficult areas of economic, social and environmental change. 

There is also much to learn from other governments around the world. In Finland, policy makers, academics and government have been working to craft an approach to policy-making based on experimentalist governance – one in which policymakers acknowledge the prevailing uncertainty and build a continuously iterative process, in which actors are willing and allowed to change their minds as new information arises.69

Proponents of this approach argue that while conventional top-down policymaking works well for maintaining operative and routine functions of the state, it is inadequate for solving complex societal problems. The current approach suffers from political short-termism and a siloed institutional structure, fed by a culture of infallibility. ‘Humble government’ recognises that the answers are not held by politicians at the centre, but need to be found through a process of exploration and experimentation, based on experience on the ground – a form of governance based on continuous iteration and learning.70

Experimentalist governance assumes that in complex change, it is impossible to arrive at an adequate, let alone optimal solution without comparing the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches in the specific contexts where they are applied. The role of government is to invite a broad and open-ended group of people with first-hand knowledge of the problem to join a deliberative problem-solving process. A humble approach is fundamentally a process for building trust, allowing actors to begin solving a problem as soon as they have reached a thin consensus on a common direction and initial, exploratory approaches. Over time, the shared learning creates a thicker consensus, as it becomes clear what is working and what is not. 

So we begin to see that, as we learn from practice, we will want to revise and change our policy goals, and that policy making should assume – even welcome - this on-going revision, and ensure that it occurs accountably, with public oversight.

The state should recognise that much of the most important social and economic policy needed in the future will be experimental and will take us into uncharted waters. Instead of trying to create a false ‘certainty’ about how things will work, we need the state to invest in research and experimentation. Jaideep Prabhu, author of How Should a Government Be?,71 argues that in business 3% of company budgets are dedicated to research and development. What would a government committed to supporting innovation and research be like? Government could begin to create a shared network of universities and research institutions working long-term on social, economic and environmental policy to evaluate experiments and inform government at all levels about emerging practice.

Case Study: Notify

The new Notify tool helps people working across government services and in partner organisations to send text messages and emails to their users. It began as a Government Digital Service initiative to enable departments to send more regular updates to service users as they found that a high percentage of calls to government helplines were people asking for updates on their applications or cases. The goal was to make government processes more transparent and responsive to the user. 

Pete Herlihy, Lead Product Manager at the UK Government Digital Service, and Georges Clement from the Harvard Kennedy school describes the cultural shift involved:

“We wanted to break the learned helplessness of teams in government, who often feel they’ll need a meeting or a series of workshops to get started with a new service. So we encouraged people to try it first. Then, if they got stuck, to get back in touch so we could work together to make that bit of the process better for the next team. Without exception people were happy to do that and the insight we gained from this approach was invaluable. We called this “permission to play.” We needed people to feel it was okay to just get in there and try this thing out.”

The service was first developed in 2015, sending its first messages in 2016. By 2020 it was sending up to 3 million messages a day, for more than 1,250 service teams and 393 organizations across every corner of the UK’s public sector.7273

Values, governance and openness 

Alongside a shift in culture towards humble government, the UK state needs to strengthen the values of a modern democracy. The civil service’s core values of political neutrality, service to the country and clarity of process around political-decision making are useful starting values. Political neutrality could be transformed into cultural behaviours that allow them to play a neutral role in facilitating processes that involve different community groups and interests. A sense of being in service to the country could help them take the long-term perspective needed for systemic change that endures. Similarly, their attachment to processes could be helpful in making decision making more transparent and accountable. These fundamentals could provide a strong bedrock for a cultural transformation. 

Yet, worryingly, in recent years some of these core principles have been weakened as the accountability of ministers and senior civil servants has become less clear. This was highlighted prominently in the recent court cases around procurement contracts during coronavirus, when usual processes for procurement were suspended. Civil servants need a legitimate basis for their power and clear processes to mitigate any political overreach. Close attention to the rules of good governance, diversity of perspective and openness to other institutions and levels of government helps to offer necessary challenge. The MOD has, in the aftermath of the Chilcot Enquiry, produced a handbook to help colleagues challenge their own assumptions to avoid ‘group think’ in the future.74 A culture of self-examination and constant testing of assumptions, as well as one of transparency and openness, would help to re-establish high standards of transparency and clear boundaries. 

Networked government 

One of the most constraining elements of the current UK state is the siloed way that departments operate, often generating initiatives that duplicate, overlap or contradict each other. Each silo communicates with people separately, leaving citizens to navigate the many different interactions themselves. Siloes don’t just constrain the relationship between the governments and citizens, they also limit the capacity of departments to innovate and problem solve. For example, HMRC can spin up a new service to deliver the ground-breaking furlough scheme during the pandemic,75 but this becomes much harder when trying to work across departments. Modern problems are complex and often cut across traditional boundaries. There has been some success in recognising this, through the development of projects such as the Centre for Autonomous Vehicles which spans two different government departments76. A networked state would set up more horizontal cross-departmental teams dedicated to solving problems at a system level and would create cross-governmental networks that allow for best practice sharing and function as forums for learning. 

Much of this comes from a focus on policy rather than the operations of government. Policy is siloed by the same political structures we’ve had for the past 100 years; the Home Office, Foreign Office, Transport etc. Policy making involves conducting research and making proposals about how things should be done to create laws which can be passed by governments. However, if you shift the focus away from pure policy towards implementation and operation you can begin to have an approach that looks at the mechanics of what’s working on the ground, allowing for faster iteration and more responsive systems. You can set up more horizontal cross departmental teams dedicated to solving problems and focused on operation. If they work you can keep them going, if they don’t they can be disbanded and reformed. 

Other ways of thinking about how to organise government include the idea of “Government as a Platform77. Here the government is conceived as  an infrastructure that supports a variety of projects, services and an ecosystem rather than something that just delivers things centrally. 

Updating the Centre

From coronavirus to climate collapse, as we head into the next decade there will be large scale complex challenges that require a strong central state to respond. During coronavirus we saw the importance of both local and central government delivery. Mass testing, vaccinations and systems of mutual aid worked best through decentralised network coordination, which had local government and civil society institutions at their heart. Yet we also needed a strong central state and centrally managed taxation system to implement furlough which at a certain point paid the salaries of 11.7 million jobs in total78. Co-ordinating the development of the vaccine through a national partnership between a British company – AstraZeneca - and a top UK University depended on the British Government, who were able to provide the pre-orders and capital to part-finance the risk. (Though the central government’s record on PPE provision and procurement was much more mixed). If we are going to intervene in and shape capitalist markets for the wider good of society, we need a powerful state that can operate at national and international level. 

But a strong centre does not mean that it should try to direct and decide everything. Paradoxically, strong central funding and coordination will be needed to direct effort, to incentivise, regulate and maintain standards, while localised systems and networks may more effectively deliver quality care services and sustain and support local economies, rooted in community and social infrastructure. 

So far, government is failing to keep up with technology companies when it comes to providing the future governance infrastructure for the online world. The role of government in creating online infrastructure and in regulating and incentivising online activity, urgently needs serious thought. Currently, many key online services are mediated by large tech companies. Apple and Google are exploring how to provide digital identity certification online which would originally be in the domain of the state. In response, India has taken on this challenge by providing a digital form of ID for every citizen, allowing them to make digital access to citizens’ services easier, prevent fraud and enable the state to hold this data and infrastructure rather than a private company. Serious questions remain about how a government’s use of citizens' identity data is regulated or how it may be decentralised, but at least it is held by a democratic and legitimate entity, rather than a profit-making enterprise79. As we explore in the chapter on platforms, tech companies have huge sway over how people live their lives. Web3 technologies like crypto currencies are building wealth and monetary systems outside any state’s control. Governments must try to get ahead of the game on technology, rather than running to catch up. 

The state also needs to learn to draw on the agility and customer responsiveness of the new power companies and platforms. The use of technology has enabled many small businesses to respond to the needs of customers as quickly as larger companies, with intermediary digital services providing the infrastructure cheaply. Government needs to keep up with the innovations in the business world and to try and match the standards of consumer responsiveness that citizens now expect. Why do you have to jump through multiple hoops to reorder a passport when you can order a laptop that arrives tomorrow? It is currently harder than it should be for people to access relatively straightforward services and it can seem almost impossible for vulnerable people to navigate the process of applying for complex benefits. Tools like the Turn2Us benefits calculator and the Universal Credit Survivors’ Facebook Group80 have been useful for people trying to navigate what is often a difficult, complex and unresponsive system. It doesn’t need to be like this. Governments like Estonia have simplified their tax system and used digital filing since 2000, meaning that it now takes less than 1 minute for citizens to file their tax returns. In contrast it takes people in the UK an average of 2.5 hours to submit their tax returns81.

There’s also a deeper point here beyond user experiences of a service. By making government services more responsive and the interaction between citizen and state smoother, the state and its power becomes closer to people’s lives. Democracy at its heart is about responsiveness - building a regular feedback system into government. Currently this happens every four years through a public vote, but what if we were to build more sophisticated ways for citizens to feed back to our governance systems? New power approaches and digital tools offer ways for government to stay in touch with citizens and engage users in the design and implementation of policy at all levels of government. 

Case Study: Bangladesh Vision 2021 - government in your pocket

Since 2008, Bangladesh’s government has been committed to creating a “Digital Bangladesh” where all government services are run through online platforms. The idea was to allow citizens to access “government in your pocket” via the internet. Citizens can apply for passports and visas online and the government is looking to do the same for all other public services by 2023. The government has also been able to issue more than 100 million biometric, microchip-embedded, smart national identity cards to its citizens, which is one of the highest volumes in the world. Through the A2i programme they have also created a network of over 6500 Digital Centres across the country which provide a one-stop source of information and government services. At these centres citizens can access government and private services allowing many people to open new bank accounts, register births, apply for passports and access land records. 

As Omar Zahid, fellow at the London Global Policy Institute, writes:

“In essence, the a2i programme aims to improve quality, widen access and decentralise the delivery of public services in such a way as to address the issue of digital divide by ensuring the underprivileged, particularly in rural areas, regardless of education or ICT literacy, can access information and services in a reliable and in an affordable manner.”82

Finally, any truly democratic state must also embrace transparency. We need to rethink open government for a digital age and pose some difficult questions. What information should be shared openly? How open is it? How can you balance the right to privacy with public good? Currently the main mechanism to expose how the government works is through the limited mechanism of FOI requests. Processes will need to be more transparent so partner organisations at every level can understand how to interface with the state. This kind of transparency around processes also helps to prevent sleaze and government corruption. As a 24-hour press provides us with endless stories about MPs’ second jobs, preferential contracts and rule evasion, we need a government that is willing to be open and transparent about its transactions, governed by integrity and rules so that ministers and civil servants have nothing to hide.  

The move towards more digital services has produced huge amounts of data which could be shared to generate collective insights that can not only help the government but all civil society to plan their own policy and interventions. The open sharing of data and outcomes is key to allowing government actions to be evaluated over time and for the necessary adjustments to be made. New campaigns, such as the one organised by the Centre for Public Data, have begun to make this case, arguing that the use of data generated by government policies should be recognised and discussed in legislation before it is passed.83


  1. Create a culture in Whitehall of learning and self-challenge - working in partnership with local government and civil society organisations and other stakeholders. 
  2. See the role of the centre as convening, incentivising and regulating. Create an infrastructure that supports decentralised delivery and draw on the processes of ‘humble government’ to tackle deep rooted social problems.
  3. Use the advances of new technology to make the transactions between citizens and government simpler and easier. Engage service users in the design of key services and create mechanisms for constant feedback and adjustment. Earmark a research and development budget. 
  4. Create a more accountable central government with clear public maps of decision processes and public access to data generated by government’s operations.
  • University of Hull,, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Neal Lawson, 45 Degree Change (1st edn, Compass, 2019) p.10

  • Sue Goss, Garden Mind (1st Edn, Compass, 2021)

  • Universal Credit Survival Group, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Ed Foale and Stephen Bennett, ‘Crowdsourcing policy: how can collective intelligence improve policymaking?’, Uk Government, 2021, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Helena Leino and Maria Åkerman (2021) The politics of making Finland an experimenting nation, Critical Policy Studies, DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2021.1985549

  • Mikko Annala, Juha Leppänen, Silva Mertsola, Charles F. Sabel, Humble Government: How to Realize Ambitious Reforms Prudently (1st Edn, Demos Helsinki, 2021)

  • Jaideep Prabhu, How Should A Government Be?: The New Levers of State Power (1stEnd, Profile Books, 2021)

  • Government Digital Service, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • David Eaves, ‘Part 7: U.K. GDS: GOV.UK Notify (2019)’,, 2020, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Ministry of Defence, The Good Operation (Ministry of Defence, 2017)

  • Capgemini, ‘HMRC rapidly develops digital service to support employers’,, 2021, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Richard Pope, Playbook: Government as a Platform (1st Edn, Harvard Kennedy School, 2019)

  • Brigid Francis-Devine, Andrew Powell, Harriet Clark, Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: statistics (1st Edn, House of Commons Library, 2021)

  • John Thornhill, ‘India’s all-encompassing ID system holds warnings for the rest of world’,, The Financial Times, 2021, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Universal Credit Survivors Group, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Christian Koch, ‘Is Estonia a blueprint for how digital taxes could work in the UK?’,, The Association of Accounting Technicians, 2021, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Omar Zahid, ‘Building a Digital Economy for Bangladesh’,, Global Policy Institute, 2021, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Centre for Public Data,, (accessed on 19.06.2022