UK Government projects fail, why?

Why do UK government projects fail time after time? Is it a cultural thing, a blindspot when it comes to the practicalities of making a policy a reality. In other words, do our leaders know how to plan, resource and manage things? If so, might such unawareness precipitate routine failure, fudging and the avoidance reality or accountability? This blog consisders what is going wrong.

“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

The quote made me think about inexpert blame-avoiders avoiding the logical consequences of their actions as inexpert blamers heap pious emotional-waffle on their heads. In such cases, huge amounts money and emotional energy are squandered by bickering people who may say they have our best interests at heart, yet no comprehension of where the problems lie or how to correct things. How can we stop such waste, pain and serial incompetence?

Institutional incompetence

Is it surprising that citizens, witnessing chronic government follies for many years, become cynical? Are they truly powerless?

Is it reasonable to suggest that, no matter how much money is available, no matter how excellent the intention, things get screwed up? As a result, the loss of large amounts of money, time and human wellbeing appear inevitable. For example, what control exists over the ongoing consumption of money on unstructured projects like Brexit? Can it be true that the weekly cost of leaving the EU is £600M, if correct it’s a tad more than the battle-bus savings offer.

Good intentions, poor results

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 became essential. With innocent enthusiasm, I attended relevant conferences.

As an attendee, I learned that public projects and effectiveness don’t go hand-in-hand. Imagine, I discoverd 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)
why UK government projects fail - intention
Good Intentions… for Sure

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

Missed point

For one thing, I learned from my explorations is that the key people in different circles don’t really know each other. No wonder major UK government projects tend to delay, miss targets or fail. Even though these were important groupings of players, the Policy Makers didn’t attend events run for the Interpreters and Implementers unless doing key-note drop-ins.

Imagine, senior politicians acting as harassed, incredibly-important-people hurtling in and out of events, dripping power, surrounded by apparatchiks who pushed ordinary mortals aside. How could they be in touch with reality?

As a result, the Policy Interpreters, appeared to have (and probably didn’t enjoy) a nut-in-a-cracker perspective? Poor souls, whatever is dreamed up, they must deliver… and nothing else can matter, including figuring out how to achieve a real-world result.

Missed opportunity

It is hard to avoid the fact that the Policy Making world and The Policy Interpretation worlds depend on Policy Implementation people.

Imagine working in a hugely pressurized, capricious environment where the top people “don’t get it” yet can change things on a whim. With this in mind, if asked and listened to, how many implementers would love to help fix things? I could cry. Could it be the “Good Intentions”  Ideal is distorted by the way things work and an autocratic, non-listening culture? I believe the truth why UK government projects fail is illustrated by the diagram below.

why UK government projects fail
Real-Politic or should that be Real-Poetic

How much opportunity and present-capability/insight is ignored and wasted? As a result, how much potential and possibility goes down the tubes along with the billions lost to “Fraud and Error” and ignored by Ministers.

A road to hell?

When you get right down to it, the process is broken. Is it fair to say it begins with a lack of insight and ends because nobody cares? Might it be more truthful to say there is no enforceable consequence for needless failure, so why bother.

Disconnected, dishonest

Ask yourself, is there much contact between the three bubbles beyond transmitting diktat… downwards? In this case, what happens to effectiveness in a world free of accountability? What price almost-plausible deniability? … 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 unlikely delivery mechanisms groan to life. I ask you, 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

Why don’t we all 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.” proverb

Large Scotch anyone?

© Mac Logan