Demos

In 2000, out of the blue, the OECD rang me and asked me to present a paper I’d written to their senior treasury officials meeting (That’s Treasury and/or Finance Secretaries). The paper advocated refashioning fiscal policy in the image of monetary policy.

I decided to do what I could to present a similar paper elsewhere on my trip and e-mailed Demos. No reply. I e-mailed again with the same result. I then phoned and got to talk to Tom Bentley who was the much hyped 26 year old Exec Director there.

He said someone would be in touch. Alas no progress was made. I rang again and got the same assurance and the same ultimate result. I ended up giving the paper at the IEA. People were very polite but many people wondered whether it was a left wing plot – it wasn’t. (They prefer right wing plots.)

For the plane trip I bought a book by Charles Leadbeater on the new economy called Living on Thin Air. It was a nice racy read for a policy book but I gradually became impatient with it’s breezy style. When he got to the bit about how people might choose their own social security system by opting into different tax levels with different benefit levels, I wondered where the discussion of the problems was. You know, moral hazard, adverse selection the kind of thing that insurance companies have wrestled with for many a generation.

(As a not entirely irrelevant aside, you used to be able to get insurance against being retrenched. Not any more. It’s too easy to arrange. Moral hazard and adverse selection mean it can’t be offered).

Anyway the book sits on my shelf but as a small sign that I am able to learn I’m not returning to it. From memory there was no discussion of such issues. (It’s probably more likely that there are a few breezy comments. But no real engagement). It just all seemed like a good idea at the time.

At any rate I was prompted to record these recollections on encountering this profile on Demos published by The Independent Newspaper.

It takes us into Demos where we get gems like this.

Alison Harvie, a Demos manager . . . shows me how the “thinkers” sit in pods of neutrally coloured desks – roughly six to a pod – in a strictly anti-hierarchical structure. As with everything at Demos, someone has spent a little time thinking about it. Alison explains how the new space works: “We spread senior staff around so that there’s one on each desk – an intern might be sitting next to the director, who might be sitting next to the database manager.”

The arrangement certainly has a liberating effect. Wide, open rooms with unstuffy furniture [what is ‘unstuffy furniture? NG] have fostered a degree of creativity, and it is not unusual to see people sitting in corners, thinking. Or at least, that’s what it looked like they were doing. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Charlie Leadbeater, who has been associated with Demos since its inception, concurs: “Space can help, but what’s really important is that people have something to talk about.” And what sustains that discussion is a constant influx of new people. While this is all very cosy and egalitarian, I am still no closer to finding out how these bright young things actually earn a wage. . . .

As the article says, “one could be forgiven for thinking that one had walked into the offices of an advertising agency.”

Paul, who is also responsible for Demos’s presence on the internet, takes me over to his laptop to show me the ways in which this willingness to “cross-fertilise” has impacted on the think tank’s global reach. “The internet’s not just about getting the Demos message out, it’s about getting the message in,” he says. To achieve this goal, there is an active Demos blog . . . and, due to an Open Access Licence, anyone in the world can download a Demos pamphlet for free, and even republish it in a modified form if they wish. These are radical ways of approaching intellectual property, and they are attracting more and more people to the discussions in which Demos is engaged.

“More and more” ey? I was a bit shocked that Paul was bragging that the Demos blog gets 1,000 hits a day. Even if it means ‘visits’ a ‘hit is counted each time the website offers up any data, like an image for instance, and this typically occurs multiple times each time a new page is viewed it still looks like a misprint. They tell me Troppo gets more than that. I went to the Demos blog to find it but it took a bit of work. There was no shortage of documentation of how they’d got into the papers, but the blog was elsewhere. I finally found it here.

It’s full of the same bland, breezy bumptiousness. Paul’s hype about how it’s about getting the message in as much as getting it out is well and truly surpassed.

First and foremost the Greenhouse is our ‘outboard brain’. We find it’s a simple and accessible way to capture useful data, knowledge, informed opinion, cuttings and other weblinks – the raw stuff which our ideas are based upon.

It’s also a bit of an experiment in ‘open policy’ creation. We’re very keen to follow a more open approach to policy research and formulation to build public policy in public, as it were. Occasionally we’ll try out new ideas on the blog before they’re published, in order to get input directly via comments from readers.

But despite being long running its archives run back to over two years to Feb 2003 the outboard brain seems to be running on empty. There’s quite a bit of content, but almost no comments.

And they seem to be having trouble getting those ideas flowing in. I e-mailed them on the e-mail they invite comments on (hello@demos.co.uk in case you wondered what could be more friendly and inviting than that?) regarding a paper they put out on making things open-source. It was a well written and engaging paper.

I would be grateful if you could pass these comments onto Geoff Mulgan, Tom Steinberg and/or Omar Salem, the joint authors of “Wide Open”.

Hello,

I have just read and enjoyed your essay on Open Source issues with interest and enjoyment and wanted to send you an essay that I have written on open source software for your interest. It will be published in the Australian Magazine “Policy” in a few weeks.

One issue of some importance for accuracy seems to be raised by this paragraph in your paper.

When something is licensed under the GPL the author is effectively saying ‘Please feel free to use my work, but if you do, you have to release your own work in the same public way that I’ve done’. It’s like putting something in the public domain, encouraging people to build on it, but insisting that if they do make changes, they are legally obliged to publish their work in the same fashion as the parent project.

This is a simpler explanation than I managed in my essay, but it seems to me that it is technically wrong. If you access open source software (OSS), and develop it, you are not obliged to pass your development to anyone. You’re only obliged to pass on the source code IF you pass on the binaries. If you don’t distribute your enhancements you can keep them and their source code as secret as you like. The remarkable thing is that even without the compulsion not to hoard, there’s so little hoarding.

No response.

I then e-mailed Charles Leadbeater. I never heard back.

So there you go. Having some sympathy for Groucho Marx’s reluctance to join any club that would have him as a member, I have a sneaking admiration for Demos’ quality control in refusing to have anything to do with me. But in any event, despite my most earnest entreaties I think it’s clear that that outboard brain of Demos . . . well it doesn’t contain me.

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4 Responses to Demos

  1. derrida derider says:

    I’ve had an encounter with Demos and had a similar experience; so much so I was led to wonder if their mothers hadn’t all imbibed psychedelic drugs while pregnant. Fair dinkum, if you bought them a brothel in Darlinghurst they’d still be broke in a week.

  2. Paul Watson says:

    derrida derider,

    With Charles Leadbeater born c. 1959 (graduated from Oxford in ’81), he’s much more flower-power generation proper than a child thereof; viz if any psychedelic drugs have maimed him, he did it himself.

    Re “I am still no closer to finding out how these bright young things actually earn a wage”, the answer appears to be they don’t – with most of the pods occupied by unpaid “interns”. Even a paid job advertised on the Demos website offers a risible salary of 20k pounds

  3. Thx for that Paul. The link indicates that Professor Ashley Goldsworthy was in the thick of it with Charles. He’s a bit of a favourite of mine. His report on technology in the very early days of the Howard Govt showed how truly raw the Government was then. It’s the worst report I can remember on the subject of industry policy. “You ask can we afford to implement my policies, I say unto you, can you afford not to”. Touche Ashley. It sure beats rational discussion.

  4. I don’t imagine much useful thinking will get done, if the example of software engineers can be used. IBM did research on environmental factors years ago and found that people needing to think hard and deeply about a topic need silence and the ability to isolate themselves. Interruptions destroy the flow of thought.

    Peopleware is the book which arose from the experience, emphasising that programmers don’t necessarily think in the same way management does.

    I recall that an advertising firm in the USA did away with set tables or PCs altogether: at the start of the day staff got a laptop from the entrance and sat down where they could. Needless to say, it was an utter disaster.

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