Policies and Projects – Fantasies or What?
Why do UK government policies and projects fail, time-after-time? Is inept leadership and ambition the heart of the matter? If so, such weakness creates chronic waste endangers our country and people? 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 our top politicians claim superb political policies will be achieved on time and to budget. What’s your experience? Is it generally true? In fact, such success depends on three allegedly interlinked and coordinated worlds; see diagram.
Why is it in spite of excellent the policy and funding promises, policies and projects get screwed-up? As an example, Universal Credit springs to mind or the failed NHS records system. Whatever the excuses, political incompetence and blind ideology (think Grenfell and ‘reduced red-tape’) cost loads in terms 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. As a result, I learned how public projects and effectiveness don’t always go hand-in-hand. For this reason, the reality of the three circles became clear.
- Policy Making (power, politicians, mandarins, concepts, ideology, expedient)
- Policy Interpretation (senior-ish officials, embattled, pressurised, compliant)
- Policy implementation (middle-order & downwards, blame-able, powerless, capable, made-cynical, bullied)
As a result of personal contact and meetings, I found myself the world of policy and project delivery shown on the right.
Real Politics – policies and projects
Policy makers, write manifestos and beyond that, things are a bit hazy. Is it any surprise that UK government projects delay, cost far more than stated or simply fail? Where is the strategic project management nous? Where practical financial skills and insight? Where true concern for the human impact of ill-prepared plans?
When an election is won, personality and behaviour changes. From soundbites, humility, attentiveness and fabulous promises … power transfers and, with it, authority. For the next four or five years, incredibly-important-people (ministers), hurtle in and out of events, dripping authority and surrounded by protective apparatchiks.
Such heavyweights 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. Of course when things go wrong, like a cuckold, the voters are last to know as cover-up and untruth takes over.
Of course, Policy Making and Policy Interpretation depends on the practical at-the coalface knowhow and skills of Policy Implementers for results. As things stand, a sitting government can force change on a whim. Thus effective action is stalled by incompetence, ideology and groupthink (see below). and an often autocratic, non-listening, oppressive and childish culture? Am I doing children a disservice?
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 in a world free of accountability and a Prime Minister with 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):
- 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
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