Policies and Projects – Fantasies or What?

Why do UK government policies and projects fail, time-after-time? I believe inexpert leadership lies at the heart of the matter. Therefore, such weakness creates routine failures, cost-overruns and delays? This blog considers the situation.

“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

At face value, we are in a world where superb political will all be achieved on time and within budget. What do you think? Is it generally true? In fact, success depends on three allegedly interlinked worlds (see diagram below).

why UK government projects fail - intention

However, in the UK, no matter how excellent the policy aspirations and no matter how much money is available, policies and projects tend to get screwed-up? As an example, Universal Credit springs to mind or the failed NHS records system Whatever the excuses, political incompetence combined with ideological actions (think Grenfell and reduced red-tape) costs the UK large aAre you got other options are readymounts of cash and human misery.

Good intentions, poor results

Many years ago, my (very small) company won a key public sector contract. There I was, new deal in hand, entering a world I didn’t know.

I soon learned that public projects and effectiveness don’t always go hand-in-hand:

  • 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, bullied)

As a result of personal contact and meetings, I discovered a world of policy and project delivery as shown below.

why UK government projects fail

Real Politics

Policy makers, write a manifesto and beyond that, things may be a bit hazy. Is it surprising that major UK government projects tend to delay, miss targets or fail?

When an election is won, personalities change. Incredibly-important-people (ministers), hurtle in and out of events, dripping power, surrounded by  defensive shields of apparatchiks. Such policy makers don’t attend events run for their policy-interpreters or policy-implementers, unless doing key-note drop-in/rush-off sessions. It is hard to see how they keep in touch with the getting-things-done reality?

Cruel Environment

How can we avoid the fact Policy Making and Policy Interpretation depends on Policy Implementation humans to deliver their commitments. How challenging it must be to perform in a pressurized and capricious working environment. For one thing, the top people often don’t-get-it as far as what is going on is concerned. Yet they can force change  on a whim. Thus the “Good Intentions”  ideal is distorted by the way things work and an autocratic, non-listening, oppressive and childish culture? Perhaps I do children a disservice.

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 billions lost to “Fraud and Error” and ignored by Ministers.

A road to hell?

What happens to effectiveness in a world free of accountability and the gift of a dictator’s prerogative? When you get right down to it, the process for getting things done is broken. By and large, it begins with a lack of insight and ends because there is no real consequence for failure. Waffle works, why bother? Mañana.

Problematic culture – flaky bubble

Secure in a bubble of righteousness and inner-circle-compliance (or else), policies are created and instructions issued. Thereupon, delivery mechanisms groan to half-life. Why one may ask, does self-evident incompetence and routine disaster not shock us? What price soundbites of almost-plausible deniability? Are promises to “learn the lessons” all there is?

As Irving 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 ‘non-supportive’ opinions

Why don’t we all demand better? Much, much, much better? Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that:

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

Large Scotch anyone?

© Mac Logan