Known knowns

An unlikely local government inspiration?

We love local government loves a guest post and today we are delighted to have one from an old friend of the blog. Today’s (s)he channels Donald Rumsfeld to ask how often we, as local government workers, really ‘know’ what we thing we know. It’s a good challenge and one well worth five minutes of your time. Enjoy!

I was reminded this week of the time before Miss Guest Blogger and Master Guest Blogger came along that Mrs Guest Blogger and I used to enjoy a lie in on a Sunday morning and listen to Eddie Mair presenting Broadcasting House on Radio 4.  My favourite part of this was always the Donald Rumsfeld soundbite of the week, which amazingly you can find archived here.  The most popular one of these was his known knowns quote which you can see here and here.

It is funny to say but he had a point which I was reminded of when listening to the coverage of the Euro crisis at the moment and the over use of the word uncertainty.

This led me to ponder; how much do I actually know as opposed to how much I think I might know? To quote Rumsfled what are my real ‘known knowns’?

Too often we think that we know more than we do.  The best part of the PRINCE2 Project Initiation Document proforma for me was always the ‘assumptions’ section, and it was largely the worst completed as people struggles to think about what they already thought.

Within Local Government, we have so much information; some of which we can now put on maps: GIS can be really useful, and one of its best uses was to completely distract a former boss of mine who as an geography teacher couldn’t leave a map alone.

We have warehouses of data and analysts to work out what it means for us but we don’t always translate that into observations.  There is a propensity with all of us to look for the information that proves our point and reinforces our worldview, with the risk that we end up with policy led evidence.

Ask yourself the question: When was the last time we saw some data that changed (not just challenged) our views?

Rutherford famously responded to the results of firing particles at gold foil by saying ‘It was almost as if you fired a 15 inch shell into a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you’. This led to a significant change in scientific thinking that led through to atomic physics and quantum mechanics.   

I can remember two such moments on the subject of systems thinking. Firstly, when reading The Fifth Discipline on a train through Abergavenny and then when reading System Failure by Jake Chapman on a quiet day in the office 10 years ago.  They have changed my way of thinking about how I work and view the world.

I don’t expect regular significant changes but it has been a while since I changed my views on life.

Councils also have access to a wide range of qualitative data about how things are going: Members often see themselves as being the prime channel for this but we so often neglect the insights of the vast numbers of people who work for the Council who live in the area as well.

How do we use this?

Are there gaps anywhere?

Are there under represented groups whose voices are ignored?

Are these known unknowns or unknown unknowns?

You might be laughed at for suggesting it but until we understand what we really know and what we only think we know we’ll find it difficult to make the sort of changes local government might need.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:

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