Why UK Government Plans Often Fail—I Want to Scream
Government Plans – Fantasies or What?
The failure of ‘oven-ready’ projects is a joke. Indeed, fudging about facts and problems begs more questions, invites scrutiny and heightens suspicion. Repeated fiascos raise more doubts than answers.
Could it be that UK government policies and processes can’t escape the need for change? What’s your experience? Does world-class delivery, as promised, happen?
“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
Government policies, projects and failure
In a government context, real success depends on three perfectly aligned, interlinked and coordinated worlds, as shown.
Without a doubt, in the realm of spin and bluster, the three-circle diagram is easy to understand. In reality, the immense challenges of coordinating people and resources in a complicated political world can’t be avoided. What’s more, project planning (or the lack of it) and deadlines increase pressure.
On the ground
Many years ago, my small company won a key public sector contract. Straight away, I found myself in an alien world of government policies and projects. In fact, the experience taught me how public promises and effective delivery seldom go hand-in-hand.
Politicians & Advisors – Invent Policy
Mandarins & Advisors – Strategise Policy
Officials & Contractors – Deliver Policy
If you want to know, do something. I attended relevant meetings and conferences, observed how things worked, talked to people in the know, and made a shocking discovery. The occupants of the three circles existed, for the most part, in different worlds. As a result, cross-boundary communication didn’t happen.
Given that competence and world-beating know-how are assumed by our leaders, why do costs increase as projects fail? Examples like Universal Credit, the NHS records system, or HS2 are well-known policies and projects in the real world.
At the moment, we face the COVID-19 challenge – not forgetting, of course, the up-and-coming Brexit deal/no deal (?) – tricky time.
Despite excuses, failed projects compromise effectiveness, generate enormous financial losses and often achieve little in terms of timely tangible outcomes.
At least, on a rather sad up-side, a few stakeholders are assured of profit, win or lose. Moreover, some commit fraud yet still gain new business. Indeed, they may get contracts without competition, despite their spotty record.
Getting it done
One might ask, where is the expertise in project management and the detailed knowledge and skills to commission, contract and demand effective delivery? For example:
- Scope, set goals, plan, timeline and structure significant projects and their complex parts
- Organise, prioritise and financially manage everything
- Chase progress, monitor performance, and honestly audit action
Without a doubt, sounding confident is easy at the outset of a project. In contrast, silence/bluster and interview avoidance are clear indicators of:
- Compromised performance and failure
- Obfuscation, fudge
- Spiralling costs
- Missed targets
Is it any surprise that UK government policies and projects often have notable problems?
On the run-up to a general election, politicians blizzard the electorate with energizing slogans, safe soundbites, humility, attentiveness and fabulous promises.
When an election is won, for the next four or five years, empowered and incredibly important people (ministers) hold sway and gift the PM with the powers of a monarch.
In real life, political heavyweights, free of election pressures, don’t attend events run for lower ranks. Now and then, they may appear as keynote speakers in drop-by/rush-off sessions. As a result, one might wonder how they keep in touch with the getting-things-done reality.
A sitting government with a huge majority can change direction and ignore expertise on a whim. Of course, this means autocracy, ideology and groupthink (see below) may be embedded.
Furthermore, autocratic and childish cultures are destructive. Childish? Perhaps I do children a disservice. How much potential and opportunity goes down the tubes? However, we must remember the £ billions lost to ‘Fraud and Error’, routinely overlooked by Ministers.
A road to hell?
Failure is no problem in a world free of accountability, where Prime Ministers enjoy a dictator’s authority.
One might ask, are there proper consequences for failure and screw-ups? Even worse, what if incompetence kills people? In reality, if waffle is enough, why carry out deep audits? Far better say, Mañana … (we’ll have an enquiry and learn the lessons).
Problematic culture – flaky bubble
Secure in a bubble of righteous ideology and inner-circle-compliance (or else), policies gestate, and directives emerge.
Why do evident incompetence and routine disasters fail to shock citizens? Why accept routine soundbites of almost-plausible deniability? Are promises to learn lessons all we have?
Do constant screw-ups and lies desensitize citizens to uselessness?
As Irving Janis (1971) suggested when he coined the term ‘Groupthink’, we are victims of (slightly tweaked):
- a 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
Does this ring true? Should we demand better? Much, much better? Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that:
“If we aren’t able to change we’re going to wind up where we’re heading.” proverb
The quote begs questions:
- Who can implement effective change? Are our present leaders up to it?
- How can we engage our experts? Many people throughout the UK have the needed knowledge, skills, experience, expertise and, with any luck, ideas.
- How can we not address the seriousness of our situation? We stand on the brink of catastrophe.
At present, whatever our politics, our country faces ruin. It’s possible we can avert the threat, but we’re running late. For this reason, if a change is to happen, constructive, fearless and staunch engagement is essential.
What are we going to do about it?
Large Scotch anyone?
© Mac Logan