5 Writing 5 Writing

Writing and governing

A man writing at an office desk.
Guy Tillim: City Hall Offices, Lubumbashi, DR Congo, 2007, © Guy Tillim

Among all the pictures of politics made and circulated every day there are very few of civil servants at work. This has something to do with conventions of anonymity and impartiality, preserving a distinction between government and administration. Our gaze is usually drawn instead to the theatre of politics, the performance enacted precisely in order that it be seen. But what goes on backstage, beneath the surface of appearances?

Guy Tillim’s photograph taken at City Hall in Lubumbashi shows a man at a desk, writing. The desk is covered in forms and files; there are more files on the shelf beside him, on the floor and presumably in the filing cabinet, too. There’s not much else: a battery offers a fragile-looking power supply, and there’s a chair for anyone who might want to come and consult this man, or perhaps bring him a new form or report, another document, more paper. This is government at a bare minimum, and that minimum comprises the writing and recording of actions, situations and decisions on paper.

Yet how should we read him, the man writing? There is some pathos in the picture, which implicitly juxtaposes the ambition of government with its rudimentary appearance here. But there is dignity, too: the man is calm, intent, not just doing something but ensuring it is done properly, keeping everything in order, maintaining the function of the system of which he is a part. Should we be more astonished by the conditions in which he works, or by the fact that he is there at all, and that this is what he is doing?


The project is a practically oriented learning-by-doing exercise involving many partners. It is not expected to produce ‘guidelines’ carved in stone, but to provide a flexible framework to encourage a broad exchange of information and a channel for the critical examination of experience.

Health Impact Assessment: from theory to practice, 2000

Towards the end of 1999, around 30 public health officials, researchers and representatives of interested organizations met in Gothenburg, Sweden to discuss Health Impact Assessment, then a new policy instrument being tried out in different contexts around the world. The meeting was part of a broader HIA initiative led by WHO’s European Centre for Health Policy.

The discussion was led by a paper which described some of the different models being explored in Germany, England, and Sweden as well as the US, and reviewed the health impact of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. The meeting in turn led to the production of a consensus paper, described as a ‘living document’. The paper was subsequently widely distributed and presented at both international and national-level meetings, and was translated into languages other than English.

Once people no longer sit round a table, it is the document which mediates between them. The paper or report does two things: first, it tells the group what it is by what it has done (it turns the meeting into a group), and second, it opens connections with other groups. For documents serve to coordinate behaviour as well as communicate information. They provide groups with a common language and vocabulary, helping them express to others what it is they are trying to do.

Concrete human action, know-how embodied in practice, persists and is transmitted only if it becomes symbolic. To preserve its form, one must change its form – and then reconstitute it.

Karl Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations, 1995

Minutes of meetings, reports, plans, statements, agreements and press releases are all ‘symbolic encodings’ which enable actions to be reproduced in time. This is a process of ‘externalization’, by which group activity produces objects which achieve an existence of their own. The object must be stable enough to be recognizable, but flexible enough to allow for further interpretation and adaptation. A key function of the document, then, is not necessarily to fix meaning, but to make continuing interpretation possible, to reproduce and extend the interactions it promotes.

Paul Cloutour was head of neighbourhood development for the city of Nantes 1989-2001, then director of urban policy 2001-2008 before taking responsibility for its citizen dialogue project. In a memoir, he takes due account of his relations with politicians, of the importance of innovation and risk-taking, of knowing how to ‘engage’ rather than to plan. But then he turns to ‘the power of writing’ in the work of policy, and reflects on the fluid and open-ended quality of what he describes as ‘A fuzzy occupation’:

Writing has been one of the structural elements of my professional practice. I’ve always written a lot, in many different forms, adapting these forms to the structures and rhythms of the briefs I’ve been given, to the problems I’ve encountered along the way.

Writing helped to establish a sense of direction. In the work of developing and facilitating, at the heart of the large and complex organizations I’ve known, what matters is to know how to write in different ways. You have to provide for the politicians, write their speeches, give them a grammar and vocabulary, prepare meetings and public events. Writing with due respect for institutional rules and routines is essential if you want to get on with colleagues. Writing up a consultation is crucial in moving a project forward. Knowing how to synthesize and render an account establishes your legitimacy, gives you a form of authority and an operational lever.

I would say now that, in professional terms, I have made and defined myself in writing.

Paul Cloutour, ‘My professional practice’, 2016

If we not only define ourselves in writing, but in writing policy also define societal questions and how they might be addressed, it’s no wonder that beginning to write may appear as difficult as beginning to speak.

In Biegelbauer and Grießler’s study of law-making in Austria, officials spoke, like Paul Cloutour, of drafting legislation as a trade or craft. Though they had civil service guidelines they might refer to – the estimable Handbuch für Rechtssetzungstechnik – knowing how to write in practice was a matter of learning by doing, and of knowing what others had done.

Functionaries, like Bakhtin’s novelist, play the ventriloquist to those writing after them and the dummy to those who have written before them.

Matthew Hull, ‘Agency, authority and autography in an Islamabad bureaucracy’, 2003

How do you write §1, how do you start writing a law?

You must be a constant… insider with this business… nothing is more difficult than being given the task of writing a… draft version every two years. Because then I… lack the feeling… and I must start again right from the beginning.

As a model we used the… Law, and then we looked at what to adjust and improve now.

Peter Biegelbauer and Erich Grießler, ‘Political practice of public officials’, 2009

I am, as chair of the Defence Committee, getting together the last two main reports which we’re going to publish, and the Defence Committee works through reports, in other words we produce these 30-60 page documents which inform parliament and the public what is going on in the Ministry of Defence

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, 2015

Parliamentary committees ‘work through reports’, as Stewart says, but they don’t write them. The writing is done by a clerk, a civil servant writing in the name of a committee, or of its chair. Authorship, and the authority and responsibility associated with it, is separated from the work of writing. This is a difficult and deeply political task, for it is in the writing that a committee’s differences and uncertainties are exposed, and either evaded or overcome.

I’ve got to get used to a new chair’s voice … you slip into their voice in a way… you’re writing a chair’s draft, so you are supposed to write in their voice (Parliamentary Committee Clerk)

I mean a good committee clerk will also understand the politics in the team and will, in the drafting of reports need to know what the committee is likely to find acceptable in a way that it’s working and … not seek to introduce elements in there which might upset the chair or might be OK to the chair but upset members and get them to turn on the chair. So a degree of political sensitivity is necessary (MP)

Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, 2020

The relations between writer and reader are relations of power, at least in the way we ordinarily think of them. The writer appears to be the source or origin of what is written, the reader its passive recipient. Authorship seems to confer authority, and that authority is produced and carried by the written word of the document. Different forms of authority – religious, legal organizational and professional as well as governmental – may be established like this in similar ways.

[In contemporary society] the textual mediation of its forms of organization [is] fundamental to its characteristic abstracted, extra-local forms, and its curious capacity to reproduce its order in the same way in an indefinite variety of actual local contexts.

Dorothy Smith, Texts, Facts and Femininity, 1990

Two features of the policy document further enhance its social and political significance: its abstraction and its plurality. When we speak, we invariably know who we are speaking to and where they are; oral communication happens in the moment of interaction. When we write, we frequently have no such indexicality on which to draw, and mean what we write to be valid in more than one instance: in this way, the language of the document comes to be cast in less definite, more abstract and generic terms.

Meanwhile, documents of whatever kind tend to cite, invoke, refer to or simply imitate others. A document acquires status by being recognizable as one of a kind: the authority of any single document is reinforced and maintained by the set or system of which it is a part. The document is a networked object.

In his study of the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Body, Nicolas Lamp explains what makes a document official, as well as how documents are placed in series and so provided with a context given by other documents.

Official WTO documents are distinguished from other texts that are produced in the course of WTO negotiations – such as NGO briefs, press releases by member states, press reports, or academic articles – by certain formal features. Some of these features are the same in all official documents and lend them uniformity, thereby signalling their embeddedness in a larger context of texts. Thus, all official documents carry the label ‘World Trade Organization’ and the logo of the WTO in the upper left corner, and a document number and date in the upper right corner. Moreover, all official documents are produced in a uniform font. The document number and the date, while uniform features of all documents, also lend each document singularity, in that they make every document unique and thus unambiguously identifiable. The document number, or document ‘symbol’ in WTO parlance, is the DNA of the document, and no two documents can have the same symbol.

Nicolas Lamp. ‘The receding horizon of informality in WTO meetings’, 2017

But there is a sense in which the document makes its author official, too: since only its members and parts of its institutional apparatus such as committees and working groups are entitled to have statements issued as official documents, the documentary system serves to demarcate insiders from outsiders. In so doing, it validates what an author wants to say, giving it the status and authority of an official WTO communication, though it also holds that author to account, in the sense that a document can never be withdrawn, only added to, revised or corrected.

The file

The management of the modern office is based upon written documents (‘the files’) which are preserved in their original or draft form. There is, therefore, a staff of subaltern officials and scribes of all sorts. The body of officials actively engaged in a ‘public office’, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files, make up a ‘bureau’.

Max Weber, ‘Bureaucracy’, from Economy and Society, 1922

Max Weber begins his seminal account of bureaucracy by listing its principal characteristics. The third of these, after fixed jurisdiction and hierarchy, is the written document, or the file. By the same token, the great anarchist Michael Bakunin argued that authority might be overthrown by destroying the documents on which it rests. Weber dismissed that idea as naïve, though it’s significant that one of the first acts of protest following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was to destroy the files kept in the headquarters of state security.

The text is created in prose, forming a kind of narrative or account of an issue or problem and what might be done about it. It may take the form of a report or memorandum, perhaps a proposal. It has an author and an audience or readership, and its grammar is that of subject, verb and object. It begins top left and continues line by line, paragraph by paragraph and section by section, toward the bottom right.

The form uses space differently, separating areas of the page from one another by borders and boxes rather than the rhythms of communication in prose. For it seeks information, not sense: it requires that the reader to become author, completing it, filling it in, and its purpose is to render that authorial subject comparable with others. It deals in categories, operating in generic, abstract domains above the idiosyncrasies of individual cases. Its logic is less that of an author than of an administrative engineer; it seems to be addressed if nothing else to other forms.

What, then, are the properties and affordances of the file? They are cognitive and communicative, but like their individual components, irreducibly physical and material, too.

One of the functions of the file is to commute individual into collective agency. Matthew Hull’s study of bureaucracy in Islamabad was conducted in specific political circumstances in which taking (or being accorded) responsibility for an action puts an individual at risk. The movement of a file, its accretion of initials, actions and referrals, many of them recorded in the passive voice, is the way in which individual agency and responsibility recedes and blurs, and becomes superceded by institutional, organizational authority.

Bureaucracies are among the most consciously materialized of social collectives – painstakingly fabricated in the layouts of offices, the writings of functionaries, the stampings of clerks, the movement of files – because they are designed to unify and control individuals conceived as either naturally independent and refractory or entangled in other collectivities… The corporate agency and authority of the [Capital Development Authority] is not based upon the organization as legally constituted, but upon the dialogic fabrication of the collective through the inscription and circulation of graphic artifacts.

Matthew Hull, ‘Agency, authority and autography in an Islamabad bureaucracy’, 2003

The file is heterogeneous, both physical (a folder) and abstract (a domain or issue which becomes a specifiable object of ministerial attention and responsibility). It brings a set of documents into relation with one another. It is unique: if it is to support any coherent or consistent action (including doing nothing) it matters that there is only one file in which documents relevant to a specific issue are collected. It is mobile, bringing together a package or bundle or box of papers which can be passed from one official to another, from subordinate to superior and vice-versa, from one department or unit to another. As it is annotated by officials as it crosses their desks, it becomes ‘a chronicle of its own production, a sedimentation of its own history’.

Cambrosio, Limoges and Pronovost show how biotechnology policy in Quebec is developed in and through the file or dossier, a native category which forms the ‘unit operation’ of ministerial activity. Its principal component is an inventory of the domain to which it refers, and this matters so much because it defines (governs) both the relationship between the documents contained in the dossier, and the relationship between the dossier and the world.

The Quebec Government Secretariat for Scientific Development (SSD) launched its work on the biotechnology action plan in March 1981 with an analysis of the literature, and its own inventory of the provincial research and development potential, including interviews with the researchers themselves. Some preliminary results and tentative orientation statements were tested and discussed by two round-tables of invited researchers, university and industry administrators and civil servants, in April and June 1981. A first draft of the action plan was written by a trio of civil servants during the Summer and, in October, was given a restricted circulation among a few experts and some high level civil servants of other ministries and advisory councils. The same month, the minister responsible for scientific development invited a selected group of researchers and administrators for dinner, in order to use them as a sounding board. The document received the green light from the Treasury Board in November, and received general agreement on fundamentals from Cabinet in early December 1981. The same month, the minister wrote to the president of the Quebec Science Policy Council, an advisory organization under his supervision for formal advice on the projected action plan (received by the minister on 2 March), and made the document public for general consultation, asking for written reactions before the end of March 1982. The Cabinet approved the action plan with little substantial change, in June, after a final screening by the Treasury Board. The action plan, under the title ‘A l’heure des biotechnologies’, was published the next month and finally presented to the press by the minister on 7 October 1982.

Alberto Cambrosio, Camille Limoges and Denyse Pronovost, ‘Representing biotechnology’, 1990

The dossier might contain notes or copies of related other previous government decisions, plans and commitments made by other officials, departments, ministries, as well as those of other governments and International Organizations. It may include information and data from government and other sources, and may make reference to generic government regulations and procedures. It sorts them even if only by listing them, and is itself already a kind of sorting: what is relevant and significant to the problem at hand is what is in the file, and what isn’t in the file is not.

The inventory reduces the complexity and fuzziness of the external world, and represents that world according to the internal constructs of the ministry. It describes the domain to which the dossier relates in terms and categories which make sense internally, to the government; civil servants are then able to work on this representation of the world, rather than on the world itself. They translate from the dossier into specific, local programmes and tasks, and then report on those initiatives in the terms it sets.

Of course, those responsible for it need to develop and maintain a reciprocal relationship between the account of the external world and the actual organization of that world: this is the purpose of a range of communications and consultations, as of the advisory boards and committees which serve as interfaces between internal and external actors.

Once a dossier exists, moreover, those outside government can make claims on it – but must do so in terms set by the dossier itself. Once an initiative is launched, external actors present themselves as appropriate counterparts, objects or recipients of it, imagining and organising themselves in such a way as to capture the attention of government. As a new domain is formed, its spokespersons are not delegated by pre-existing groups but give rise to a group by defining themselves or being defined as its spokespersons.

In each of these ways, the dossier or file is performative, meaning that it serves to create the reality it purports only to describe. The dossier and the domain develop in tandem, as the dossier gathers up a set of communications and at the same time becomes the medium through which parties communicate.

A major from the ‘strategic planning unit’ showed us a slide of black dotted vertical lines, eight yellow horizontal arrows, punctured by red and white equilateral triangles and rimmed by aubergine, sky-blue and burgundy horizontal bands. This geometrical design was covered with text. He began to speak about some of the priorities for the three main cities…

He pointed to a series of yellow arrows, which were labelled: Governance, Economy; Essential Services, Ministry of Justice, Security Affairs; Ministry of Interior; Strat Comms: Strategic Communications; CJTF-7: The Coalition Military Command.

Each arrow was cut by dotted lines representing various dates between then and December 2005, more than two years off. The sky-blue lines had labels like ‘OIF2 rotation’ and ‘accelerated army recruiting’. The aubergine lines, more purple at one end and more blue at the other, were labeled ‘job creation’ and ‘transition to Iraqi control’. The triangles represented key indicators…

Each arrow had its own more detailed plan, we were told, as did each triangle. A full interactive hundred-page document breaking this down was available and was being continually updated on the CPA Intranet

Rory Stewart, Occupational Hazards, 2007

The major was concerned in his presentation to establish an authoritative definition of the situation, as were the Deputy Governor Stewart’s weekly ‘situation reports’ to Baghdad, which ‘imposed a structure on our actions – job schemes, the police, the council’.

The negotiated text

Anyone who is not prepared to spend a good deal of their working life drafting, redrafting, and re-redrafting — and then trying to sell the product to national officials — should not make a career in an international organization.

Stephen Marris, ‘The role of economists in the OECD’, 1986

The peace talks at Rambouillet were prompted by a document (the draft accord), then marked by written accounts of the discussions which took place there. What was really going on was that the definition of the situation was being negotiated in the drafting of a document, the peace agreement. Participants moved or acted in turn, by making written comments on draft statements, such that the principal interaction of the meeting took place between documents as much as between groups or delegations.

What happens is you get comments from one side, you go in another room and you get comments from the other side. You try to incorporate the more sensible of the comments, and then you bring out a new draft and, lo and behold, they look and they say, ‘Where did this come from?’ Well, it obviously came from the other side and they don’t like that. And then they say, ‘Well, what happened to our idea?’ and you say ‘Sorry, the other side couldn’t allow that in there and neither could we.’

US Envoy Christopher Hill, in Tobias Wille, ‘Representation and agency in diplomacy’, 2017

What really mattered was what was written in the formal (documented) declaration – and then what mattered was not only to agree, but to sign, to give written evidence of agreement. The document seems essential to the way a meeting is realised, the way it and its participants acquire agency.

What the negotiators wanted was a peace agreement, and what they needed for that was a document, in relation to which their key protagonists might act.

In negotiations, particularly in multilateral negotiations, it is common for the outcome to take the textual shape of an end communique. Following initial rounds, where positions are taken up, alliances formed and tactics employed, one arrives at a stage when drafts are presented. Eventually, these drafts will be melded together, with the more or less explicit goal being a document that may lend itself to everybody’s signature. Inevitably, there will be divergences over what shall be excluded and what shall be included, how points included should be formulated, how strongly they should be presented and in what order, how binding they should appear to be, etc. If initial negotiations over these textual points do not result in immediate consensus, stuff may be literally bracketed, for example in the sense that a roundabout formulation will be agreed upon, and a more specific reading will be put in parentheses behind it. This is a dangerous moment for the side that is being bracketed, for everybody knows that there will be no end document if the bracketed issues are not settled, and the expectation all around will be that the final settlement will involve doing away with the parentheses. There is no guarantee that any part of what has been bracketed will actually survive in the finished text. ‘To hold a bracket’, then, means that you are holding out for what is (at least for the time being) a specific minority position. Inevitably, the heat will be on for you not to hold on, which implies that you will (again at least temporarily) be in the thick of things. ‘To hold a bracket’ is to be in the thick of the practice of negotiation.

Iver Neumann, ‘To be a diplomat’, 2005

Guy Tillim, Avenue Patrice Lumumba, with texts by Robert Gardner and Guy Tillim, Munich: Prestel/Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2008; this series is also at Kuckei + Kuckei.  Tillim sought to capture an architectural landscape somehow ‘inappropriate yet indisputably African’, offering an anti-essentialist view of Africa as hybrid and future-oriented (Guy Tillim, Lensic Theater, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 31 July 2011; podcast, remarks at min:sec 27:20).  Similarly: ‘There’s a ten-year period in the late modernist world where there was this grand colonial architecture built in Francophone Africa and Lusophone Africa. It was this strange contemporary mythological time. These buildings are impressive, for all their inappropriateness they nonetheless form part of a contemporary African stage. If you look at them in a certain way, they’re just kind of floating worlds’ (Guy Tillim, interviewed by Colin Hirsch, a magazine, July 28, 2008; cit Karen Irvine, Guy Tillim: Avenue Patrice Lumumba, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago)

Health Impact Assessment: from theory to practice. Report on the Leo Kaprio Workshop, Göteborg, 28-30 October 1999, NHV-Report 2000:9, Göteborg: Nordic School of Public Health.  The discussion which follows here is taken from Richard Freeman (2008) ‘Learning by meeting’, Critical Policy Analysis 2 (1) 1-24

The sense of objects becoming independent of groups is Ignace Meyerson’s, in Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996

Paul Cloutour, Mon Voyage dans les Institutions Nantaises, 1989-2014, Bruges: Aquiprint, 2016, specifically chapter 6, section 1 ‘Ma pratique professionelle’, pp 159-167; the ‘fuzzy occupation’ is in the original ‘Un métier flou’, from Gilles Jeannot (2005) Les métiers flous. Travail et action publique, Toulouse: Editions Octarès

Biegelbauer, P and Grießler, E (2009) ‘Politische Praktiken von MinisterialbeamtInnen im österreichischen Gesetzgebungsprozess’, Österreichische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 38 (1) 61-78

‘Functionaries, like Bakhtin’s novelist…’: Matthew Hull (2003) ‘The file: agency, authority, and autography inan Islamabad bureaucracy’, Language & Communication 23 287–314, p 308; the reference is to Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. Four essays, edited by Michael Holquist and translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin: U Texas Press, 1981

‘I am, as chair of the Defence Committee…’: Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, op cit

Reflections by the Committee clerk and the MP are from Marc Geddes’s Dramas at Westminster, op cit, 2020, pp 84 and 91

‘[In contemporary society], the textual mediation…’ is from Dorothy Smith, Texts, Facts and Femininity. Exploring the relations of ruling, London: Routledge, 1990, p 2

Nicholas Lamp’s study of the WTO is published as Lamp, N (2017) ‘The receding horizon of informality in WTO meetings, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 63-79; the quotation is p 68

Max Weber, ‘Bureaucracy’; from Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, part 3, chapter 6, in Gerth, H H and Wright Mills, C (eds) (1948) From Max Weber: essays in sociology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; the quotation is p 197

‘Bureaucracies are among the most consciously materialized…’ is from Matthew Hull, op cit, p 288, p 311, and ‘a chronicle of its production…’ ibid, p 296

Cambrosio, A, Limoges, C and Pronovost, D (1990) ‘Representing biotechnology: an ethnography of Quebec science policy’, Social Studies of Science 20 (2) 195-227; the introductory account of the action plan is p 199

Stewart recalls the major’s presentation in his Occupational Hazards. My time governing in Iraq, London: Picador, 2007, pp 115-6 and his situation reports p 240

‘Anyone who is not prepared…’: Stephen Marris (1986) ‘The role of economists in the OECD’, p 103, cit Vincent Gayon (2009) ‘Un atelier d’écriture internationale: l’OCDE au travail. Éléments de sociologie de la forme «rapport»’, Sociologie du Travail 51, 324–342, p 325

Observations about the peace talks at Rambouillet are based on Tobias Wille, ‘Representation and agency in diplomacy’, op cit; the US Envoy’s remarks were reported in a press briefing and are included p 821

The account of ‘holding a bracket’ appears in Iver Neumann (2005) ‘To be a diplomat’, International Studies Perspectives 6 72–93, p 84