Are we addicted to grand policy solutions?
Most public policy innovations will fail. Take a moment to think about this. It’s not something you’d hear many politicians admit (nor indeed many think-tankers). Yet according to the likes of Paul Ormerod, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and others, this is the reality that we live with. Multi-million pound interventions are hailed in the media upon their launch as the big solution to whatever crisis they are attempting to solve, and then suddenly dissolve without a trace as they struggle to live up to their hype. Many of these initiatives are rarely talked about again.
Take the example of the Coalition’s regional growth fund scheme. At the time of launch, this was positioned as a major structural investment plan that would help create half a million jobs up and down the country. Two years on and it appears that the £1.4bn scheme has dramatically fallen short of expectations. So much so that a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) indicates the scheme may have spent as much as £200,000 generating every net additional job.
Another example – albeit far too early to write off – is the Work Programme. Although the theory behind it may be sound, the delivery of the scheme is perceived by some to be flawed. Inappropriate contractual arrangements have meant large private contractors are unable to meet their overly optimistic targets for getting the long-term unemployed back into work. Indeed, they now run the genuine risk of making a loss on the scheme. Witness the recent news that G4S is unlikely to deliver the 13,700 Olympic guards it originally promised.
So what is the solution? Paul Ormerod, speaking today at the RSA, argues that instead of launching these grant but massively costly schemes, policymakers should instead be experimenting with trial and error and manageable pilot projects. If things work, move them to the next stage and expand their reach into different areas or target groups. If they don’t, shelve them and try and learn from past mistakes. This was, I believe, one of the key messages coming out of the NAO’s report on the Work Programme. Ministers were so keen to get something up and running as soon as they entered government that they didn’t allow enough time for a pilot of the scheme, meaning that mistakes such as setting overly optimistic targets were not identified and ameliorated early on.
Granted, this is a fairly simplistic take on how to design and implement new public policy innovations. Yet the basic logic holds: you can’t expect to deliver effective solutions to today’s major social, economic and environmental challenges by rushing into things with large, expensive initiatives. This much makes intuitive sense. The obvious question is then to ask why policymakers still end up doing it and repeating the same mistakes.
Part of the answer lies in their (and our) ‘addiction’ to designing grand solutions which address supposed ‘crises’. Earlier this week I blogged about the academic Keith Grint’s notion of a ‘Cuckoo Clock Syndrome’, part of which involves tackling ‘wicked’ problems – those that are complex and multifaceted – with ‘elegant’ solutions – those that may sound appealing but which are too simplistic to make any notable impact. In the rest of Grint’s paper, which I didn’t cover in that blog, he talks about the various factors preventing leaders from appropriately combating these wicked problems. He writes particularly about our leaders’ tendency to turn ‘wicked’ problems into ‘critical’ ones that appear to demand some form of decisive action.
Grint describes a number of reasons why our leaders like, and are often forced, to reframe problems in this way. First, in order to attract greater readership, the media often distort the nature of wicked problems so that they appear critical, which in turn puts pressure on policymakers to describe things as ‘crises’. The examples Grint cites are Swine flu, terrorism and the American Depression. However, this could equally be applied to today’s public policy challenges, for instance inner city knife crime.
Second, Grint says that our innate love of excitement and the romanticism of the hero and villain fairy tale conditions us to perceive of many situations as crises. We want to see impassioned leaders that talk about problems with rhetoric and gusto, and often they oblige to our demands by turning issues into something bigger than they actually are.
Third, Grint talks about society’s psychological challenge of ‘Nietzchean Anxiety’, which makes us scramble in the dark to fashion and attribute ‘causes’ to ambiguous problems. If we can’t find a clear, definable cause then there may not be a solution – not exactly a comfortable thought. More often than not, this leads us to create crises out of nowhere. Witness our focus on immigration as one of the root causes of national decline.
So to return to the original question, it is partly because of our tendency to define ‘wicked’ problems as ‘critical’ ones (i.e. crises) that our leaders are tempted (and sometimes forced) to design and implement grand, expensive solutions to public policy challenges. And as much as we would like to blame politicians and policymakers for their role in this phenomenon, it is as much, if not more, to do with the wider public’s ‘addiction’ to such crises.