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Meaningful dialogue between academia and the most senior civil servants is all too rare. But when it happens it can...
Meaningful dialogue between academia and the most senior civil servants is all too rare. But when it happens it can be a revelation.

On one recent occasion, the head of a unit set up in the early days of the current government's second term was flummoxed at the thought of presenting prime minister Tony Blair with the academic's conclusion that outcomes are unpredictable. How, the Whitehall operator wondered, would that sit against five-year strategies and public service agreements?

The fact is that, if the prime minister listens to his military advisers as closely as we are told, he knows the answer already.

In an article in the Royal United Services Institute Journal in July 2004 air marshall Sir Brian Burridge, commander-in-chief Strike Command during the Gulf war, outlined changes in military strategy. I am not a regular reader of the RUSI Journal, but I do read The Telegraph's Rachel Sylvester. In a piece two years ago, she made the potentially significant link between Sir Brian's emerging analysis and public service reform.

On the cold war, Sir Brian wrote: 'Military leaders knew exactly who and where their enemy was, what kit and training and doctrine they had.'

But today, 'conflicts and their dynamics are different. The battle space is complex and ambiguous with the potential for the full spectrum of conflict to be identifiable at different places and at different times. But all these aspects keep moving, changing in texture, changing in intensity and changing in location'.

Military strategy in the cold war was like conducting a symphony orchestra. But now the challenge is to 'bring order to the maelstrom of ambiguity and complexity'. It is, he concluded 'more akin to jazz - there is no template, no score and differing styles abound'.

That analysis applies equally well to the increasingly complex and joined-up world of local governance.

The overall shape and tempo of a jazz piece can be predicted - but its precise form and pattern cannot. For me, the real magic comes when one member of the band passes the musical baton to another. That can only happen where there is mutual respect, confidence and trust between the musicians.

Coping with unpredictable outcomes in public services means being able to capitalise on unexpected bonuses and having the flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges. Both hinge on the same dynamics as are needed in a jazz improvisation.

The question is whether the conductors have spotted the need for a change in tempo. In April 2003, Ms Sylvester was briefed that the prime minister was coming to realise 'local units' should be encouraged to play more jazz. Two years later, it's time to remind him.

Phil Swann

Director, the Tavistock Institute

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