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  • Geoff Mulgan

Can government think? A lecture on understanding government as a brain


I was due to give a keynote this month at the annual conference of the Bennett Institute in Cambridge University. The conference was postponed but they have now published a written version of my lecture and others: https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/publications/bennett-2020/#PAPER1


It looks at how governments observe, analyse, remember and create, using the COVID-19 crisis as an example. I also address issues such as the vital importance of 'triangulating' - why you should never fully believe anything the system believes unless you have verified it from the grassroots - and why we need a new curriculum for leaders and civil servants, since we tend to be ruled now by lawyers and journalists who aren't well prepared for complex challenges like pandemics or climate change (in other words, Oxford's PPE was a progressive course a century ago, but isn't now).


This is how the lecture starts:


'The last few have months confirmed just how much we rely on governments’ capacity to think and act, in conditions of great uncertainty and scary speed. As lessons are learned from the very uneven performance of different governments around the world, I hope it will fuel interest in the topic I had planned to talk about at Bennett this year – the question of how government thinks and could think better, and the need for a more developed ‘cognitive political science’.

The idea of government as a brain is very old. The earliest symbol of governance, the Sumerian symbol of the ruler, was the rod and line - a symbol of a surveyor not a warrior: analytical, cognitive and controlling. And for millennia government was often imagined as a head, with the ruler’s head put on coins. But what is the neuroscience of the state? What does it remember or forget? How does it create? Does it suffer delusions and fantasies? What makes some governments amplify the intelligence of their society while others do the opposite?

To answer these questions, a good starting point is to look at how governments observe, analyse, predict, remember and create. As I’ll show one mark of effective government is that it has a high quantity and quality of feedback of all kinds which it uses to interpret the past and prepare for the future (while avoiding the risk of fetishizing just a few kinds of feedback, like poll ratings or stock price)........[to read on click here]


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