Costly Screw-ups as Daft Ministers Mangle 3 Key Areas

Costly Screw-ups as Daft Ministers Mangle 3 Key Areas

Are Silly Screw-ups almost guaranteed?

How often do we hear weasel-worded excuses for screw-ups made by almost-contrite ministers? Politicians who, at the outset, exuded complete confidence backed by trenchant promises, their colleagues and apparatchiks close by nodding like toy dogs.

At the simplest level, three organizational elements create endless opportunities for leadership failure in the UK government or Westminster Bubble. Furthermore, this is routinely exacerbated by:

  • insufficient analysis of reality
  • incomplete planning
  • feeble budgetary control
  • a top-down communication style
  • patchy performance monitoring
  • dissembling and fudge when things start to go wrong

Without a doubt, a lack of diagnostic, management and project planning insight dooms or damages government projects long before their implementation.

Why do we routinely accept our politicians’ bravura avoidance of accountability for endemic failure, cost overruns, and delays? If only it were ministers’ money, things might be different.

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

3 circles of ideal structure and performance avoiding all screw-upsPromises, Promises

Hope springs eternal but effectiveness requires competence, expertise and pragmatism. Still, at many outsets, we are always promised superb outcomes. All will be achieved on time, within budget, and absolutely no possibility of screw-ups. How well does your experience match the optimism?

When you get right down to it, enabling excellent outcomes depends on three overlapping worlds cooperating, communicating and engaging expertly with perfect synergy. Achieving such success involves an interdependent trio of groups who:

  1. Make Policy
  2. Implement Policy, and
  3. Deliver Policy

Imagine our satisfaction if political promises at the outset matched perfect outcomes on completion.

Our citizen experience may cast doubt on our politicians’ delivery effectiveness and highlight their hubris.

Why then do we re-elect them, time after time? Should we (can we?) insist on a change in how our Government operates – its norms, weaknesses and cupidity?

It can’t be denied that in the UK, no matter how excellent the policy aspirations are, and how much money is committed, deliverables are seldom achieved and mostly late. For example, the Universal Credit project the failed NHS records system and HS2 spring to mind. Whatever the excuses (think Grenfell or reduced red tape from Brexit), these screw-ups cost the UK massive amounts of money, material and misery for minimal return and even less accountability.

Great promises and poor results

Many years ago, my (tiny) company won a key public sector contract. There I was, a new seven-figure deal in hand, entering a world I didn’t know. Before long, I learned that public projects and effectiveness seldom go hand-in-hand. Sadly, the pristine three-factor promise morphed into reasons for screw-ups. The promises and good intentions were enmeshed in an unreliable tangle of ideology, power and multiple agendas. The three groups of people became ineffective.

  1. Making Policy involved very powerful people, politicians, mandarins, advisers; accepted thinking, ideology, concepts, dogma; entrusted responsibility clean hands, expedience and buck-passing. The coalface experience and hard-won expertise seemed limited at best.
  2. ImplementingPolicy relied on somewhat powerful people, seniorish politicians, officials and consultants; working style, embattled-busy, pressurized, compliant; delegated responsibility, following orders, bossing the troops, demanding results. Coalface experience could have been less limited, but often operations, with a little collusion, would be sidelined into profitable private sector rabbit holes.
  3. Policy implementation low-to-no power people, middle-order & downwards, all roles; follow orders, blameable, powerless, compliant; responsible capability and capacity – often overlooked, knowledgeable, experienced, cynical, pressurized and often committed. Coalface experience could be rather good if seldom consulted.

As a result of personal contact and meetings, I encountered a dysfunctional world of screw-ups waiting to happen. The irony of all this clutter meant that the massive potential of most of the people involved lay untapped. How frustrating.

3 circles of failure and screw-upsThe real politics of screw-ups and failure

At the outset, policymakers in the UK create and sell manifesto commitments. Beyond that, things get hazy. Along with the lack of detail, management and control become even foggier and factional the nearer you get to the coalface. As a result, government projects tend to delay, miss targets, and cost far more than expected. Many fail without a trace.

When an election is won, politicians are like werewolves transformed by moonshine. Transfigured by election victory and promotion, shiny incredibly-important-people (ministers) hurtle in and out of events, dripping power and surrounded by a defensive shield of officials.

Inevitably, status being what it is, top policymakers don’t attend events run for their policy interpreters or policy-implementers, apart from key-note drop-in/rush-off sessions.

How do the people at the top keep in reliable touch with the getting-things-done real world?

Cruel and dishonest work environment

Policy Makers (deities all) depend on Policy Interpreters (mostly relatively senior) and Policy Implementers (often less senior) to deliver the desired outcomes. Imagine having to perform and achieve in a pressurized and capricious working environment.

The top people don’t get it

For one thing, the top people often “don’t-get-it” as far as the real world is concerned. What’s more, they can force change on a whim. Thus, well-intended manifestos are doomed by a lack of expertise and delivery weaknesses.

How can we avoid the impact of an autocratic, non-listening, oppressive and childish culture? Might tots have helpful insights to share?

How much opportunity, capability and 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?

What happens to effectiveness in a world free of accountability and the gift of a monarchs’s prerogative? It is hard to deny the process of getting things done is broken. Delivery begins with a lack of insight and ends in disaster because there is no reliable and inevitable consequence for failure. Waffle works. Why bother? Mañana.

Problematic culture – flaky bubble

Secure in a bubble of ideology 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 fail to shock us? What price the 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‘. Using his idea, it seems we are victims of 3 Groupthink pitfalls :

  1. dysfunctional decision-making process leaning on compliant groups.
  2. The corporate unawareness or ignoring of practical, thrifty and humane options for action.
  3. The irrational avoidance and discouragement of ‘non-supportive’ opinions

Why don’t we all demand better? Much, much, much better? If we can’t change and improve (big time), we will wind up where we’re heading. Now there’s a leadership challenge.

Large Scotch, anyone?

© Mac Logan

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