Things work, do they?

Politics, noun. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914)

Why do key government policies and projects stumble and fail? Perhaps if we thought about how things work, we may find a clue? What goes wrong? What’s missing? Might political mendacity and spin be byproducts of something else? Is regular failure a symptom of a culture that lacks insight, expertise and critical thinking? One may ask, does limited accountability lubricate failure?

When things are going wrong, how long must citizens wait for a “we-don’t-know-what-to-do” admission. What price an “it’s our fault”? In other words, months or years of needless pain, £ billions wasted and millions of people suffering. Furthermore, if the muddle is ignored, who will fix the waste, pain and serial stupidity anytime soon?

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.
Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle

Institutional incompetence

We have cost overruns: Brexit, Failed IT systems and so on. Is it surprising that witnessing chronic governmental folly, over many years, breeds cynicism. Above all, not much changes, apart from the faces blurting soundbites.

Moreover no matter how much money is available, no matter how excellent a policy, implementation is generally poor to disastrous. Unsurprisingly, large amounts of wasted  money, time and human wellbeing result. For example, where is a gold-standard, proven method for achieving results.

intent is … things work

Many years ago, my (very small) company won a key public sector contract. There I was, big-break in hand, moving into a world I didn’t know. Learning about how things work was essential. With innocent enthusiasm, I attended relevant conferences.

As an attendee, I learned that public projects and effectiveness don’t go hand-in-hand. Overall, I found three separate and barely connected worlds (diagram below):

  • Policy Making (power, politicians, mandarins, concepts, ideology, clean hands, expedient)
  • Policy Interpretation (senior-ish officials, embattled, pressurised, compliant, clean hands)
  • Policy implementation (middle-order & downwards, blame-able, powerless, capable, made-cynical, dirty-ish hands)
The governments project delivery intent.jpg

It stands to reason that the intention of any government is something like the diagram above. In this model citizens get fabulous promises from politicians, they’re all met in time and under budget. In your experience or belief, is this generally true?

how thing work and why government projects fail.jpg

missed point

I noted that the main people in each universe didn’t know each other. They didn’t attend the same events either. Likewise, Ministers were rarely present and then only for a short time.

Policy makers appeared at conferences run for their ilk. Isolated from the rest, ministers attended as keynote speakers. With great show, these harassed, incredibly-important-people dashed in and out of events, dripping with power and surrounded by apparatchiks.

It seemed to me that Policy Interpreters, had (and probably don’t enjoy) a nut-in-a-cracker perspective? In other words, whatever is dreamed up, they must deliver and nothing else can matter, including figuring out how to get real.

missed opportunity

You see, the Policy Making world and The Policy Interpretation worlds depend on the Policy Implementation world.

Imagine working in a hugely pressurized, capricious environment where the top people “don’t get it”. With this in mind, do people in Policy Implementation world understand how crazy their situation is? I bet they do. If asked and listened to, how many would love to help fix things? My answer is lots… I could cry.

There’s a simple question, how much opportunity and present-capability/insight is ignored and wasted? How much potential and pain goes down the tubes along with the £40 billion or so lost annually to “Fraud and Error”? How often do unfair situations provide ample political excuse for contracting with the (don’t tell me they are more effective) private sector.

a road to hell?

Clearly, our leaders want to deliver excellent outcomes. Maybe they don’t know how. Or maybe they haven’t time to be effective. Or maybe they don’t even know about alternative ways of doing things. Or maybe their emotional energy is lost other pressing stuff. What stops effectiveness?

REALITY – The process is broken. Perhaps it begins with a lack of insight and ends because nobody cares. In reality, there is no enforceable consequence for needless failure, so why bother. If you don’t believe me, consider the costs to our nation of the Brexit failure and the waste around that.

disconnected, dishonest

Ask yourself, is there much contact between the bubbles beyond transmitting diktat… downwards? What happens to effectiveness in a world free of accountability? What price almost-plausible deniability? In this case until the reality of failure is inescapable. Unsurprisingly, once found out, the game centres on blame.

a problematic culture in a flaky bubble

Secure in a bubble of rightness and inner-circle-compliance (or else), policies are created and delivery mechanisms groan to life. Does self-evident incompetence and failure shock us? Are promises to “learn the lessons” all there is?

As Janis (1971) suggested when he coined the term ‘Groupthink‘, we are victims of (slightly tweaked):

  • dysfunctional decision-making process used by compliant groups
  • the ignoring of alternative practical and humane courses of action
  • the irrational (and dishonest) discouragement of ‘disconfirming’ opinions

It isn’t complicated, we see it all the time. Should we demand better? Much, much, much better? Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is this statement,

If we can’t change we’ll wind up where we’re heading.

Large Scotch anyone?

© Mac Logan