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.
A friend of mine recently came across the Gutenberg Project on the internet. In case you haven’t heard of it, this is something of a movement seeking to upload and disseminate as many free ebooks as it can on the web. One of the ebooks my friend stumbled across was entitled, ‘How to Analyse People on Sight’, by Elsie Lincoln Benedict and Ralph Paine Benedict. Penned in 1921, it’s a bizarre piece of text which seeks to categorise people into 5 different types: the Enjoyer, the Thriller, the Worker, the Stayer and the Thinker.
While each of these different categories are supposedly related to a particular ‘body type’ – the Worker, for example, has a bigger physical build compared to the Thriller who is tall and thin – the authors believe that these categories can also tell us about the types of people they are, their emotions, their likes and their dislikes. As they note, “Through this latest human science you can learn to read people as easily as you read books.” For example, The Enjoyer is a fat man who is a “brilliant conversationalist” and who “seldom dislikes anybody for long”. On the other hand, the Thriller – that is, the man who is tall and thin – tends to be temperamental, but is also keenly sensitive and can put himself “in the role of another”. It is argued that these and other insights can be used to improve the way we interact with others, including who we choose to marry and who we decide to employ.
Although the authors say this form of segmentation is grounded in scientific fact, their sources are clearly more likely to be found in ungrounded generalisations and superficial stereotypes. It’s obvious to most people reading this book today, as hopefully it was to those reading it at the time, that this is a fairly useless analysis of human beings and what makes them tick. To classify people into categories based on their body type, and then to be so assured that you can elicit information about their personalities and tendencies just from one glance is not only farfetched but also arrogant.
Yet what is concerning is that even now we continue to fall back on many rudimentary forms of classification, manoeuvring people into boxes that can rarely hold them. Like the child who can’t seem to find a way of slotting a triangle into the circle-shaped hole, we seem pretty persistent at hammering away anyway. Take the plethora of magazine questionnaires which try and identify our personality-type, the matchmaking websites which help us figure out our ideal type of partner, or the many attitudinal surveys which enable us to see what our true political tribe is.
Many of these examples would seem rather trivial if it wasn’t for the detrimental consequences which even seemingly minor forms of segmentation may have. The first issue concerns how we view and interact with others. One of my colleagues in the Social Brain team believes certain models of segmentation are at risk of establishing a new form of hierarchy, whereby certain ‘types’ of people are come to be seen as superior to others. Although I think there is some truth in this, the issues of segmentation appear far more subtle. Concerns over hierarchy would only make sense if everybody was aware of their ‘type’ and if certain groups were willing to be subservient to others; something which doesn’t lend itself neatly to current models of segmentation.
A more likely source of tension will be the way in which people use personality types, conscious or not, as a means of creating dividing lines and causing rifts between others they fail to get on with. Though this too might seem fanciful, it is not hard to imagine someone complaining about another person’s behaviour on account of their particular personality ‘type’. For instance, if someone is having difficulty getting their boss to take on an idea of theirs, they may begin to cite their manager’s ‘settler’-like personality as an explanation for why the risk wasn’t taken (see Seven Transformations of Leadership by Rooke and Torbert for an example of segmentation in the workplace). Not only does this divert attention from the real problem (i.e. perhaps it was just a bad idea), but it also sets the tone for future interactions between the people concerned.
The second problem of segmentation lies in how we see ourselves. At a recent lecture here at the RSA, author and social psychologist Timothy Wilson spoke about how our self-constructed narratives can often be powerful predictors of the way we actually behave. In short, we tend to live out our own stories for the future. The more we see ourselves as being involved in our communities or as free from drug and alcohol abuse, the more likely it is that it will happen. In the same way, such placebo effects are also likely to arise from our habit of self-segmentation. To return to the 7 leadership styles in the workplace, a manager identifying themselves as being a ‘Diplomat’ may end up stuck in that role, fulfilling their ‘story’ as a people-pleaser instead of somebody who isn’t afraid of taking unpopular decisions. Bound up in a pithy and catchy ‘type’, such unhelpful narratives can only end up being cemented further.
Not all models of segmentation will lead to such pernicious effects. The ‘Value Modes’ approach, for instance, might be one example of a model which is changing the face of politics and policymaking for the better. By understanding people’s different value modes (settler, prospector or pioneer), the aim is to promote pro-social behaviour by designing policies and initiatives which better reflect people’s different value systems. That said, the level of faith that many are putting in this approach echoes much of the self-assured tone which is present in the book mentioned earlier.
While getting to know ourselves better can often be a route to empowerment and greater autonomy, we should be careful that it is the rich complexity of human nature that we are acknowledging rather than simply trivial categories which we can all too easily find ourselves falling back on for quick and easy answers.
“Birds of a feather flock together” as the old saying goes. But can being surrounded by people who are very similar to each other be damaging?
I am prompted to ask this question by a number of otherwise unconnected observations that have recently occurred to me.
Yesterday I chaired an event at the RSA with the excellent Ian Leslie, talking about his book Born Liars. Leslie argued that self-deception is part and parcel of human nature. As he said, there is a phrase to describe people who have an accurate picture of how attractive, funny and charismatic they appear to others and that phrase is “clinically depressed”. Unless we kid ourselves that things will get better, there is very little chance that they will.
A member of the audience raised the question that Barbara Ehrenreich raised in her RSA lecture, namely, isn’t there something unseemly about promoting self-deception? Ehrenreich’s examples include the careers advisor who takes money to tell you that being made redundant is the best thing that ever happened to you.
There is a phrase to describe people who have an accurate picture of how attractive, funny and charismatic they appear to others and that phrase is “clinically depressed”
Leslie was not willing to go this far, but he did say that people who are prone to extreme self-deception are not well served if they are surrounded by other people with a similar degree of self-deception. This can lead to a delusional state in which people become quite removed from reality.
I have also been re-reading the seminal article by Thomas Pettigrew on “Intergroup Contact Theory”. One of his most interesting observations is that “in all samples, Europeans with outgroup friends scored significantly lower on five prejudice measures” That is to say, white Europeans that have BME friends are significantly less prejudiced that those who do not.
I was prompted to connect these two observation by the news that the Telegraph have published documents detailing plotting around the change of Prime Minister from Blair to Brown.
I do not have much to say about the details of the plotting but I do think it’s noteworthy that senior politicians tend to be surrounded by quite tight knit cabals of advisors. Apparently, Thatcher used to ask of new appointments, “Is he one of us?”
The advantages of having a closely connected group of quite similar advisors are obvious; loyalty, shared vision, team work, but there are disadvantages too. Teams made up of very similar individuals can become delusional, can adopt a bunker mentality and can fail to adapt to changes in circumstance. It takes a brave leader to bring in potentially disruptive individuals but sometimes it is the right thing to do.