Could the challenges of a minority government lead to a stronger and more stable governing system?
Like many, I’ve been pondering what the result of Thursday’s vote means while trying to keep up with all the manoeuvrings since.
Hypothesising what the electorate mean by the outcome is a fool’s errand, given the breadth of motivations and reasons which tipped people into the decisions they made. No doubt, factors include: Brexit, education, NHS, the economy, inequality, nationalism or security. Others will have decided based on their preference for a party leader. Whatever, the individuals thought processes were, standardising an interpretation from such limited data across the nation is mistaken.
However, I do want to note what is changing and what remains constant after the election result….
What’s not changed?
That said, the scale of the challenges facing our nation remains the same as those prior to the election. We are still exiting from Europe. We still have grave inequality in the country. We need to adapt our NHS to better meet the changing needs of all of us, help our old people feel valued and provide an education for the young that equips them for work. We continue to struggle to combat extreme violence, deal with the impacts of climate change and tackle global poverty.
Likewise, the conservatives are still the largest party in the UK, with more MP’s and the largest share of the vote. The role of the government to form, propose and pass legislation remains.
The challenge we have created, inadvertently or fortuitously, for our MPs is how to continue to propose and pass legislation effectively with a minority government. A political scenario that we have little experience of in this country. It is a fresh challenge for our politicians and civil servants. They can no longer rely on parliamentary dominance to effect decisions.
Our politicians will need to work much more effectively with each other. My plea to our leaders is “don’t bemoan the reality and wish for a different situation” instead, adapt, learn and rise to the challenge of finding better ways to operate in this new situation.
I suggest government will need to develop more collaborative approaches.
How can we operate in the new political reality?
I believe an opportunity exists to improve our political culture, learn from businesses and international development practice and move towards establishing a collaborative culture with learning being an integral component. This would also strengthen processes when small majority governments are in parliament too, something we have seen more of in the last decades.
A collaborative approach is markedly different to our competitive and occasionally co-operative governance practices
Let me define a few terms
Collaboration – formal processes that enable people to search for shared understanding, meaning and solutions creating a broader ownership for action and clarity about what will be learnt through the implementation phase.
Co-operation exists when there is an agreement to share information, take a course of action with a limited remit and is often marked by terms such as compromising, negotiating, and trading to reach a desired outcome. The current engagement between the Conservatives and DUP fits this model.
Competition: when the world is framed as a competitive environment, creating the best space/ context and rules for your team matters. There are winners and losers.
Working collaboratively isn’t some romantic notion and ideal, though admittedly given our existing cultural biases it can look that way. We have very few reference points in our daily experience where true collaboration is practiced. This can put us off starting the journey. It just feels safer to do what we have always done. We know how to compete and have many reference points and metaphors which reinforce competitive cultures, not least from the world of sport. (See text box on Competitive Cultures)
Reinforce the win-lose framework and though all teams take the field with the same rules, the work done outside the field of play dominates the potential for success. Setting rules and their interpretation helps your team to be more successful.
The America’s cup competition rules provide an interesting example. The winners define the design rules for the next race and the location of the competition. This puts the existing winners at a distinct advantage and challengers at a great disadvantage. It has always been thus. The outcome of winning streaks by nations is then unsurprising.
There is great resistance to changing rules in other sports where rule changes are a threat to the incumbent. Football is a much slower adopter of innovation than hockey for instance as happened when hockey introduced the no off-side rule and new rules for free hits and corners. It is still hockey, though plenty of advocates continue to block rule changes in football saying it won’t be football!
In Westminster, political ideas compete amongst rival parties. Elections are either won or lost. Debate is intended to sharpen policy which is then voted through, while parliamentary whips ensure the largest party can exert its dominance in the voting.
What do we need from collaboration?
A collaborative approach needs to yield more effective results than those gained through competing or cooperating.
What does effective collaboration look like?
The start point is developing a shared understanding about the current situation. This will involve framing the problem as it exists and moving away from blaming one side or other for the situation. The major change is developing the commitment to learning, removing fear and stories of enemies, and instead creating frameworks that support accountable actions. There is a shift away from individual decision making to group consensus building. In Westminster, we’d see less of the unwanted by-products of our competitive systems; the endless arguments about interpretation of data and statistics, personality cults and destructive practices like filibustering.
So, let’s explore a few questions about when collaboration is effective and how to set rules that provide the best chance for success.
When is collaboration the appropriate method?
A collaborative approach is most desirable when:
Clearly a collaborative approach is appropriate to address our current social, economic, political and even spiritual needs.
There are of course significant potential risks. A collaborative approach can:
Managing and mitigating the risks requires a high degree of trust. Resolving these risks would be an excellent place for politicians to experiment with a collaborative process and build confidence and trust by reaching a consensus on rules and responsibilities for more collaborative engagement and through the process build trust.
What skills (hard and soft) do we need to operate effectively in a collaborative culture? Working in a new culture does require different behaviours and adopting these reframe power dynamics. Collaborative cultures can be recognised by:
What will make it go wrong?
Given the scale of change implied in moving to collaborative cultures my optimism recedes. However, collaboration is required to redress the balance of control in complex social, economic and environmental problems. Learning is fundamental to facilitate effective decision-making and developing the capacity to adapt and innovate and so we need to discover our first step. (I will blog another time on learning cultures and decision making)
What’s the first step?
The space I believe that offers the greatest opportunity to develop a strong collaborative environment is through cross-party committees in parliament. Could a cross-party group negotiate the Brexit process? Can they establish the vision for the UK that incorporates the needs for social, political and economic development and promotes cultures that sustain change? A collaborative approach can build the coalition of success.
We have given parliament the problem of how to govern with a minority government. My hope is they will recognise and embrace the opportunity and develop collaborative cultures for the long-term benefit of those they represent.
These challenges are mirrored in many of our organisations; businesses, public bodies, charities and grass roots organisations as they seek to understand their social, political, economic and environmental impacts. Building effective collaborative partnerships requires us better understand ourselves (our needs and feelings), understand others (their needs and feelings) and create space and frameworks which strengthen understanding and accountable actions.