When Government Policies and Projects Fail
Government Policies and Projects – Fantasies or What?
Because our politicians guarantee ‘oven-ready’ project delivery, failure to deliver is visible. In such cases, fudging about facts and problems begs more questions, invites scrutiny and heightens suspicion. Repeating fiascos raise even more questions.
“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 and projects have perfect alignment … easy
Let’s focus on the government context. On balance, real success depends on only 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 complex political world can’t be avoided. Equally, project planning (or the lack of it) and deadlines add even more 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
In light of talking to people in the know, attending meetings and conferences, and observing how things worked, I found myself in a baffling actualité. The occupants of the three circles existed, for the most part, in different worlds. As a result, synergy happened more by chance than design.
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 CoVid19 challenge – not forgetting, of course, the up and coming Brexit deal/no deal (?) – what a tricky time. Despite excuses, self-inflicted disasters cause dreadful levels of human misery, and enormous financial losses and often achieve little in terms of tangible project 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 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 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?
- Many people, across the board, have knowledge, skills, experience, expertise and, with any luck, ideas. How can we engage them?
- How can we not address the seriousness of our situation as we stand on the brink of a catastrophic recession?
At present, whatever our politics, our country faces ruin.
At present, 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?