Bridging the geek/policy wonk divide

Last week I was at One Team Government, an event to bring together digital teams and policy folk to talk about how to make government more effective. I went to a fascinating session, suggested by @jargonautical, about the digital geek/policy wonk divide. It’s a pattern I’ve often seen, especially in security and assurance work. People with the same goals can have such different ideas about what’s important — and how to work together — that they struggle to work together at all.

The impacts of this can sometimes be quite severe, because in most cases, a good balance of geekery and wonkery is necessary for a good outcome. In other words: multidisciplinary teams are important. When one skillset is missing or sidelined, bad things happen. Like the digital service with a great-looking set of security policies that nonetheless contains basic vulnerabilities. Or the well-secured application that is unusable. Or the beautifully designed policy that fails because it’s impossible to implement.

I think this results from a failure to communicate. When people don’t understand each other, they can appear dismissive of each other’s ideas. And as soon as that happens, the rot begins: a vicious cycle of decreasing confidence in the value of each other’s contributions. So what can we do to make this better?

Involve everyone early

Early involvement of all interested parties saves time, strife and money. For example, if a team first involves security experts in the delivery of their service when it’s just about to go live, they’re not going to have a good time. There’ll be more problems that are more expensive to fix.

Early discussion of the problem at hand from the perspective of each person on the team sets expectations, helps planning and avoids trouble down the road.

Listen actively

Listen carefully to what others are saying. This is always important, but it’s even more important when the person speaking is from a significantly different personal or professional background to you. Try to interpret what’s being said in the best possible way, and assume good faith.

Beware of Déformation Professionnelle and contempt culture

No single profession has all the answers: good public service design and delivery comes from the commingling of different ideas and perspectives. Any individual trying to force other people’s points of view through the lens of their own profession will at best fail to get the most from the team, and at worst will sow the seeds of dysfunction.

Contempt culture is also dangerous: being flippant or dismissive in discussions about other approaches, technologies and points of view can create long-lasting bad feeling. Allowing personal taste to masquerade as objective criticism is a sure-fire way to reduce the diversity of perspectives in a team.

Empathy and vulnerability

One of the recurring themes of One Team Government was the importance of empathy and willingness to be vulnerable. I think both of these come through in all of the points above.

Sometimes when people communicate badly it’s because one or both of them doesn’t want to appear unknowledgeable – and thus vulnerable – in front of the other. It’s not comfortable to feel like you might appear ignorant, and that feeling can be compounded if it isn’t respected by others. But it can only be respected if it is noticed, and that requires empathy.

Both empathy and vulnerability require trust: trust that another person’s viewpoint is important and held in good faith, and trust that another person won’t take your vulnerability as a sign of weakness, or an invitation for abuse.


And so, as ever, the culture of the team is vitally important. Trust doesn’t happen at first sight: it grows over time. From playing together. From having clear expectations about behaviour, and shared values. From clear leadership and purpose. From consistently showing respect for others, their views and their experiences. From accepting that no one person or profession has all the answers, takes all the risk or deserves all the credit.

The unit of delivery is the team. The measure of a team is its culture. And the culture you get comes from the behaviours you reward.