In spring 2019 I set up an experimental art project with fellow policymakers to explore the diversity of the UK’s commercial fish species through the act of drawing and painting. The project continues to run, one year on.
Below is my original concept for the project. Click here for the project’s official website.
“My efforts are directed not to making a carpenter an artist but to making him happier as a carpenter.”
– John Ruskin
Some weeks ago Jim Naughtie interviewed the artist David Hockney for the Today programme about his new exhibition in Amsterdam, ‘The Joy of Nature’. They get stuck in a lift, get rescued by Dutch firemen, Hockney chuckles at the memory wickedly, and then they discuss Hockney’s hero and fellow exhibition star, Vincent van Gogh. Hockney marvels at Van Gogh’s draughtsmanship and describes the importance of the skill of drawing. “When you teach people to draw”, he says, “you teach them to look”… “I can’t think of a better way to teach people to look”.
Hockney isn’t the first to note the link between drawing and insight. Drawing as a way to observe and understand is a subject being examined across the world this year in events marking the 200th birthday of John Ruskin, the Victorian polymath, artist and environmentalist. Like Hockney, Ruskin believed in the power of seeing and the power of teaching art to teach all things. He believed that a person couldn’t appreciate nature unless they looked at it, and looked again. He believed the act of looking and drawing was more important than the drawing itself, accurate perception being a facility for the mind – a kind of mindfulness. This belief led Ruskin to teach observation of shape and colour to help people find ‘truth’ at The London Working Men’s College and then establish the Collection of the Guild of St George, with its art-filled museum, his response to the inequality and environmental degradation of the Victorian age and his attempt to make Britain a happier place in which to live.
What do we mean by mindfulness? I’ve a lot yet to learn, but I understand mindfulness to be seeing things as they really are, in all their complexity, not seeing only what we want to see. Yes, it’s about slowing down, being calm, breathing, reducing anxiety, actions that help us stay sane and resilient. But maybe mindfulness is primarily about unprejudiced, non-judgemental awareness and clear insight in everything we do.
How can mindfulness help us as policy-makers? I believe that observing clearly and describing things in a plain way can help us overcome several interrelated hurdles that hold us back from making the best decisions possible: unconscious bias, framing effects (ignoring complexity), and stress.
Self-awareness to reduce unconscious bias
Unconscious bias comes in many forms but can be summarised as the natural tendency for our brains to make quick, automatic judgements and assessments of a situation, thing or a person. In a work setting, if unconscious bias goes unchecked we can be selective in the advice and information we seek and the people we talk to, and we risk taking suboptimal decisions. Institutional memory, for example, can lead us to being overly reliant on established ways of working and miss the opportunities in new ideas; this is availability bias. Being aware of how we perceive the world by taking some time out to reflect, can help overcome this.
Drawing is one way to see the effects of our brains in subjective, rather than objective, mode; if we don’t find ways to correct this, our drawings won’t always reflect reality. We put on paper what we think we saw, rather than what we actually saw, as old habits and conditioning take over. To demonstrate this, take a picture of a person and try to copy it. Then do the same but this time with the original picture turned upside down. In one of the two exercises, you were forced to observe the shapes and spacing more consciously and not rely on learnt motifs or patterns. Which of your drawings is more accurate?
Re-framing: noticing and embracing complexity
Complexity is exhausting and designing a new policy in a multi-dimensional area is daunting. Often we have to do this under huge time pressure, and it’s tempting to jump over the unknown bits and objective reality to what we assume is the answer; this is cognitive bias. But our policies are important and so we take a systematic approach, often developing a set of options to choose from. Even then, we want to be aware of the unknowns within and around those options so that we can understand the risks of our approach and keep improving or changing our policy. To avoid working in a silo, or being dogmatically wrong, which can lead to poor value for taxpayers, we can apply principles of mindfulness, investing time at the start in defining the problem and asking lots of questions, in order to properly notice the system that surrounds it.
There are loads of tools available to help us re-frame in this way. In the fisheries team, we’ve explored the benefits of PESTEL and SWOT frameworks to help get us out of siloed thinking, open our minds and to test our assumptions about fisheries management. And we’ve been running some courses to introduce a ‘problem definition sheet’, a framework to use at any time to help see the big picture, challenge beliefs, and identify all the inter-dependencies that we wouldn’t automatically think of. This is a really useful and simple tool for policy-makers of all levels of experience. Please contact us if you’d like to join.
For more ideas, Policy Lab, a small team based in the Cabinet Office, has a range of tools on their website to help get us comfortable with complexity and make it work for us. They’ve also published a great blog on how decision-makers are affected by cognitive bias and how to tackle it through re-framing:
This art project is deliberately specifically relevant to fisheries policy, and aims to help improve awareness of the animals that are the subjects of our decisions. Unlike farmed species, the 80 or so wild fish species of commercial importance to the UK are not widely known. I hope the project will boost appreciation of the complexity and diversity of the biological organisms and systems that we manage and protect.
We all know the benefits of being well in work, but it’s easy in a busy environment to stop listening to ourselves and stop observing how we are. When we’re mindful, we’re more able to stand back from stress and distractions, and focus clearly on what we’re meant to be doing. Ruskin’s theory about drawing and happiness may be spot on; there is growing evidence for the link between the visual arts and wellbeing.
The Framed Fish project aims to help participants stay well at work and engage healthily and mindfully in our policy areas. In the spirit of Ruskin’s teaching, this isn’t about producing a masterpiece, or something to display; it’s about the experience of observing and drawing. Ruskin said about his students, ‘They could not enjoy their work so long as they were thinking whether they could do it better than Jones or Robinson by their side”. That said, if the portraits we produce can eventually be displayed in order to share with others the vibrancy and diversity of the UK’s sea life, all the better.