Good intentions and unexpected pleasures

The blog, like most other people, has lots of good intentions which often don’t amount to much. The most persistent is buying books and putting them aside for later. Sometimes it is years before the blog gets around to them and sometimes they are still sitting on shelves.

The Umberto Eco principle is also useful. Eco had a massive library and was always being asked by visitors: “have you read them all?” Well no bibliophile ever has – partly because they will be buying books without making actuarial calculations – and partly, as Eco explained, because the bibliophile has generally looked at the books, knows what’s in them in general terms and sometimes picks them off the shelf to look something up. But the bibliophile also has the pleasure of taking up a work some years after the initial fuss about it has died down.

Over the Christmas-New Year period the blog finally got around to reading two books it had dipped into but never read thoroughly and critically. The books were Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, and Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s The Blunders of our Governments.

The first, as most readers will know, focuses on the counter-intuitive thesis that the amount of violence in the world is in decline. To set the scene he uses as his starting point a selection of Biblical texts which reminds us just how awful the foundational works of religions are.

Probably many people started the book, flipped through it or just felt good about owning it. It is not quite in the same position as those non-fiction best-sellers nobody has actually read such as Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Piketty’s Capital but it has many of the same qualities – important, solidly evidence-laden and genuinely important. Would be readers should be warned that the summary of the data supporting his conclusion is dense and exhaustive. There is also significant reliance on psychological findings from a wide range of studies of college students some of which we are now suspicious of because of doubts about replicability. But the way Pinker extrapolates from studies of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is impressive and reminds us of the rich pickings in the area – as shown by the recently-departed Thomas Schelling who not only laid many of the foundations of behavioural economics but also inspired the Dr Strangelove plot.

But what prompted the blog to write about it was the fundamental conclusion – the decline of violence is ultimately based on the spread of reason. This is not just about the Enlightenment and later figures but also about the general population and the evidence for increasing general knowledge and intelligence levels. The events of 2016 make it difficult for rationalists to keep believing in the centrality of reason but reading Pinker reminds us that reason helped us overcome far more horrific things than those we are currently experiencing.

On the other hand governments keep blundering – sometimes with violent and deadly consequences. Crewe and King’s book would be hilarious if it was not so serious in its history of successive blunders by Tory, Coalition and Labour Governments. There are too many examples to list but two stand out – the Thatcher poll tax debacle which lead to her losing the Prime Ministership and the Blair involvement in the Iraq invasion. The latter is probably the biggest post-WWII blunder in the western world and its ramifications are enough to dent the most optimistic outlook on life. Nevertheless, while it is difficult to see even Donald Trump doing something equally stupid the blog wouldn’t bet on him not combining with Netanyahu to bomb the Iranians with all the consequences of that.

Outside these two major blunders there are some common themes to the Crewe-King work. First, how systematic avoidable failure of IT programs and outsourcing have wasted not just millions of pounds but billions. The Blair Government with the NHS nightmare and the Tories with the child support system are prime examples. The blog’s son – who works in IT – says IT firms love governments as clients because they refuse to listen to advice about tried and true system and always want something new and special; often don’t have staff with the expertise to manage the programs; and, worse, they often outsource management to the usual suspects (the big accounting and consulting firms) which simply make things more complex and more expensive.

Second, the disastrous impact on public sector competence of never-ending change management programs which turn organisations upside down and ensure that no-one stays long enough to gain the knowledge to manage policy implementation. Naturally the managers who make their reputation in change management, like the responsible Cabinet Ministers, have usually moved on before the blunder becomes apparent. Many in the PR industry, who love to get involved in change management and make heaps of money facilitating these destructive programs, also share some of the blame.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the presence of groupthink in organisations from management structures to political parties. Groupthink is a proven recipe for blunders, appalling issues management and crises. Sadly the advisors to organisations – again including PR people but also lawyers and other consultants – also make significant fees for agreeing with the groupthink rather than challenging it. The Gordon Brown London Underground financial fiasco is every consultant’s dream – a huge complicated project which involves dozens of people sitting around charging huge fees for a long period for a project too complex to ever work. In this last case the billions wasted were not for any more valid reason than to get the project underway before Ken Livingstone became London Mayor. The poll tax is another example although this one also highlights the dangers of PowerPoint presentations which the poll tax policy team used to win Cabinet support. Unfortunately the presentation, like the NASA Shuttle presentation left out some key details. Fortunately however no lives – other than Maggie’s political one – were lost in this case.

Incidentally the Crewe-King book was listed in 2014 on the Grattan Institute‘s annual Prime Minister’s Reading List. Whether the PM read it or not the blog doesn’t know. But on the basis of the Malcolm Turnbull team performance it seems doubtful.