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5.5 Challenge of insight cultivation

1. Dilemmas

Those concerned with the crisis of governance at all levels of society are faced with a number of dilemmas:

(a) Information overload: There is too much information purportedly of relevance to any given policy-making situation;

(b) Vested interests of information suppliers: Insights are increasingly subject to some implicit form of intellectual copyright, a recognition that some form of payment is required, and to the pressures of a market place that must necessarily distort their significance to gain acceptance;

(c) Dubious quality of insights: It is increasingly difficult to establish the merit or relevance of any set of available insights --and notably that supplied by those with a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo;

(d) Authoritative insights: To govern with authority necessitates dependence on authoritative insights. Unfortunately those with authoritative expertise have often contributed significantly to the conceptual processes and decisions that have led to the crisis of governance to which a response is sought.

(e) Simplistic information filters: Efforts to reduce the information overload and gather appropriate insights are endangered by the simplistic conventional procedures which can be most readily implemented;

(f) Lost insights: Valuable insights are increasingly difficult to acquire and readily lost in the complexities of crude information gathering procedures -- typically it is virtually impossible to distinguish between eccentric insights of little value and unconventional insights that open new possibilities;

(g) Unaccountability: It is frequently easier for those in authority to avoid or evade responsibility for any potential problem rather than to ensure that information on it is appropriately sought and processed;

(h) Cultural biases: The conventional assumption that information is processed in the light of objective procedures obscures the different ways in which particular cultural and subjective biases distort the manner in which insights are selected and processed.

(i) Format: Under the pressures of the moment, the ideal responses are those that can be briefly explained, are readily comprehensible, and lend themselves to photo opportunities with the media. This constraint may be impossible with responses of requisite complexity to deal with a complex situation.

The combined effects of the above dilemmas leads to a form of "insight impoverishment" within the policy-making environment. The leadership is effectively starved of insights -- often without realizing this is the case. On the other hand, available insights of considerable value may well go underused. Efforts to remedy the situation are too often designed by those responsible for creating it in the first place.

2. Modes of response

There is necessarily a variety of ways of considering the above dilemmas. These can themselves become a reflection of the difficulties in designing an adequate response. One approach is to consider the appropriateness of responses in the light of distinct metaphors:

(a) Information system: From this perspective the issue is one of designing an adequate information system. This approach has traditionally been favoured by intelligence agencies and culminates in the presentation of information in high-tech "situation rooms". This is extremely resource intensive.

(b) Biological "capture": As in any predator/prey relationship, skills may be developed to capture insights or their bearers. This response is favoured by corporate "head-hunters" and those seeking to benefit from any "brain-drain".

(c) Signal "capture": By viewing insights like signals, the challenge is seen as one of capturing such signals (as in telescopes) and amplifying them to a significant level of resolution. This approach may involve deploying arrays of signal detectors (such as look-out or foresight institutions)

(d) "Profligate nature": As in any natural system, the production of insights is seen as a consequence of natural profligacy. From this perspective there is always a superfluity of insights produced of which only a small proportion will effectively "take" and produce viable consequences. This view may therefore be used as a justification for ignoring the insights that "fall on stony ground" and are unfruitful.

(e) Insight "economy": This perspective offers a view in terms of producers and consumers of information. In one view there is then an information "marketplace" in which insights must compete. An alternative to this economic perspective derives from the "command" economy approach in which there is a far greater control and intervention in the kinds of insights which can be legitimately produced, irrespective of desires expressed by end-users. Wastage of "resources" may then become an issue.

(f) Knowledge industry: In this variant the emphasis is on knowledge "production", suggesting that the production of insights can be institutionalized in knowledge "factories". This view would be favoured by promoters of major research and development programmes, notably in relation to the harder sciences and technology.

(g) Insight "ecology": In this richer biological metaphor, there is a speciation of insights which interact within knowledge "ecosystems" of ideas and compete in an evolutionary sense. The co-evolution of complementary insights may be seen as of importance.

(h) Delivery systems: The focus may be placed on the systems through which insights are disseminated and through which knowledge is delivered to those able to act upon it.

(i) Learning systems: Within this view society and the groups which compose it are learning systems through which insights are produced and to which they adapt and respond. The challenges of governance is then seen in terms of those of societal learning and vulnerability to erosion of collective memory.

(j) Collective wisdom: This traditional view places emphasis on the accrued collective wisdom and the adaptive capacity of "old boys" networks and elders in response to any crisis. This can be comforting both to those in positions of authority and to those who depend upon them.

(k) Societal health: With society viewed as a body, indicators of the "health" of that body become meaningful. Remedial action in response to crisis may be seen as a form of medical intervention with prescriptions, palliatives and prosthetics -- some of which may be essentially cosmetic or may only have value as placebos.

(l) Collective security: The uncontrolled emergence of insights can be seen as a potential threat to established systems that guarantee collective security and stability. This view tends to find favour within political, economic and religious hegemonies. It enables responses to be articulated in terms of well-developed military and collective security systems and strategies.

3. Metaphoric traps and opportunities

Each of the frameworks above has its strengths and weaknesses. Each may become a trap under particular circumstances and eachmay offer opportunities for effective governance. The challenge is to develop the quality of governance without developing undue dependence on any one of them.

Governance is above all not a static process. Situations are continually shifting. The media is continually offering new angles and images that exacerbate any potential instabilities. In recent years government has been to a large extent media driven. To recover the initiative, the processes of governance needs to be able to continually generate more powerful images -- or else these will be sought and generated elsewhere.

In a sense governance is in a permanent reframing competion with the media. The processes of governance recover the initiative when they are able to generate enthralling images or dramas of greater power than those generated by media ingenuity and creativity. How does governance acquire the creative independence in image work of policy relevance so that it is not totally a slave to media pressures?

4. Insight cultivation

There is an increasing tendency for government policy-makers to rely on special think tank units, whether internally set up or externally sub-contracted. The manner in which such units are sensitive to, collect, elicit, and are obliged to filter information is the key to insight cultivation. The need to flexibly open to information when there is relatively little and to close to information when there is too much is of course a survival attribute of any social or organizational unit, notably as studied by Orrin E Klapp (Opening and Closing; strategies of information adaptation in society. Cambridge, Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1978).

Several grades of response might for example be envisaged:

(a) Minimalistic bureaucratic response: Strict adherence to the letter of any mandate or contract. Exclude all other information, especially that from sources that can readily be labelled as unofficial. Avoid encouraging information which implies more work.

(b) Crisis management (survivalist) response: High sensitivity to immediate information needs. Seek information wherever it may be found. Filter out anything that does not reflect current short-term priorities. Avoid consideration of alternative perspectives, notably those advocated by opponents.

(c) Non-partisan, professional response: Develop sensitivity to a wide range of sources of established quality, systematically excluding anything that falls below that threshold. Articulate a range of options for short and long-term governance. Avoid issues bearing on assumptions governing selection of sources and information, especially if these may be critical of the appropriateness of the professional posture adopted or the relevance of the options formulated.

(d) Proactive response: Evoke information and insights by investing significantly in the design of insight cultivation and capture systems. Emphasis placed on configuring conflicting incommensurable perspectives so as to evoke insights relative to governance faced with complex dilemmas. Concern with the match between the articulation, through appropriate imagery, of the policy challenge faced by governance and that which is communicable through the media to wider publics from which further insight may be consequently evoked.

It is of course inappropriate to demonize the first responses in favour of the latter. All have their place in an integrated system of insight cultivation which urgently needs to be articulated. At present however, the last is significantly absent, whereas the others have significantly demonstrated their inadequacy in recent years.