UCL Policy Lab


Humans in the system: the power of humanity in creating change with Dan Honig

22 February 2023

Dr Dan Honig is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at UCL and co-lead for the UCL Policy Labs Ensuring Sustainable Development research theme. Here he talks to us about how everyday solutions can tackle complex challenges.

Dan Honig

This article originally appeared in the UCL Policy Lab Magazine.

Dan Honig speaks with such clarity that he always allows us to understand the immediate, everyday implications of his research. His work transforms what we know about the effectiveness of bureaucratic systems, helping us govern better.

The technical focus may be on bureaucracies, but at its heart, it's about human relations.

“My work is about how to recognise the human-ness of the humans who work inside government systems, and think about how to support them to do the things they want to do,” he says. “It doesn't have to be that complicated. If somebody really wants to do a good job, then we should probably just enable them to get on with it and do a good job.”

Honig has studied government systems using the very sharpest methodologies. But he believes passionately that research shouldn’t remain locked within the academic world.    

“I close almost every one of my classes by saying: ‘we're involved in a joint project well beyond this class. The project of trying to make the world a better place. And I hope what we’ve done in this room can be of some small use to you in that way - and if I can ever be of more, please do get in touch’. It might sound silly – and it might sound overly American or clichéd to say that – but that's what I believe. I see the UCL Policy Lab as part of that larger effort, to make the world better for all of our sakes.”

His research has led him to conclude that often those on the front line of service delivery have the best insights into what can deliver improved outcomes. But too often they’re views are ignored.

This experience isn’t just theoretical but also practical. Honig spent several years working for the Liberian Minister of Finance. Looking at the practicalities of government systems, he soon recognised the power of a government official who truly cared.

Talking about his time in Liberia, Honig says: “I saw time and again that the people doing the best work – the people who were trying the hardest to be helpful and to do good in the world – often spent a lot of their time fighting their own internal systems.” 

“I see those lessons from Liberia everywhere I look . I haven’t yet found a domain of state experience where rules don’t sometimes thwart behaviour which is supposed to be the purpose of the organisation.”

One key to understanding Honig’s approach is his time growing up in Detroit, and the insights the city and his friends continue to provide.

“I was back in Detroit talking to a buddy about my next book Mission Driven Bureaucrats. I was explaining what the book was about and he said, ‘Hold on, so the point of the book is that if people really want to do a good job, we should let them do a good job?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that's basically it.’ And he said, ‘Look, I think it's awesome that you're a professor and that you’ve got a great job of course... But doesn’t everyone know that? How is that a new idea?’ My reply was, ‘I think lots of people know that. I think you know that. I think I know that. I think anyone on the street who we could stop outside this house in Detroit would know that. But you know who doesn't know that? The people who run the system. Because we have a system that doesn't run as if that's true, or doesn't make that possible.”

It’s these lessons that Honig aims to bring to his work as co-lead for the UCL Policy Lab’s Ensuring Sustainable Development research theme. Working with his co-lead, Gabriel Ulysses, he is convening conversations with researchers and policymakers that can help build on what works in driving development progress.

Fundamentally the UCL Policy Lab is about understanding complex challenges so well that we can all grasp the solutions. And that’s something Dan Honig gets.

“The UCL Policy Lab provides such a fantastic opportunity for bringing rigorous academic research, insight and the world of practice together. We can do more when we build on stronger foundations. I think that both the worlds of practice and academia are made better by opportunities for both to learn from the other and to put the puzzle together.”

It’s a puzzle that Honig invites all to help solve.

Read the latest edition of the UCL Policy Lab. 

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