Build or burn?

Don’t ask governments to do anything. They’re rubbish at it

Most people most of the time are busy getting on with their lives.  In the case of newspapers, lobbyists, think-tank academics and politicians, getting on with their life means trying to change all of ours.  It’s their job.   And every few years we get to say whether their doing it well or not.  You have to admit, it’s quite an efficient system.  For doing nothing more energetic than making a mark at a polling booth I’ve got things that have improved my life.  My local school has been rebuilt and no one smokes in public buildings any more.

I feel quite sorry for politicians.  When things go wrong, we say ‘something ought to be done’ but we don’t offer to help out and do anything ourselves.  What we really mean is something must be done by somebody else.  Yet, often the only thing governments can do is pass laws.  They can’t actually ‘do’ anything.  For this reason, politics is as concerned with how things seem as how they really are.  It must be hard to thrive in an environment like that.

The most feared words in the English language, according to Ronald Reagan, were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.  It was a good joke in 1986 but it didn’t seem so funny in 2007 when queues had formed outside each branch of Northern Rock or in 2008 when all the rest of the banks seemed about to collapse.  So it’s crystal clear now that governments can indeed do things, and do them well, in ways that help us all.

However, it doesn’t mean Reagan was wrong.  After all, there are some things that governments do badly; loosely summarised as ‘running things’.  It’s here that governments get unstuck.  It’s the navy aircraft with no aircraft carrier to land on, the new computer system that doesn’t work or the construction project that is late and over budget.  Why do projects like these go wrong so often?  Are these people idiots?  Of course not.

Perfectly competent, capable people can however come together to make a perfect mess of things.    In Edinburgh the Scottish Parliament and the tram system are prominent recent examples.  In the UK, patient records and social security IT systems have not delivered and, currently, the ‘Obamacare’ implementation is not going well.  Why?  I don’t have direct knowledge of any of these examples but I’ve seen enough smaller scale projects to be able to hazard a guess:

Difficulty Level

It’s not just governments that get things wrong.  The private sector is not a halcyon place of error-free efficiency.  There are just as many cock-ups and incompetence there as anywhere else.  Big change projects are just difficult to implement. Optimism bias affects everyone’s estimate of the difficulty involved, the skills necessary and resources required.

Many Masters

All projects have a bumpy start when you discover the main sponsors / decision-makers want different things from the project.  Sometimes these differences cannot be reconciled and someone will be disappointed.  In a private company at least all these constituencies work for the same company and the same Chief Executive.  In the public sector organisational boundaries are a lot more porous.  What this means in practice is that when someone or group is disappointed, they are able to keep their issue alive for much longer than is safe for good project management, sometimes never reconciling to any compromise.  For them, ‘good enough’ is not good enough; they want the best.  In the private sector it’s easier to ask such constituencies to live with their disappointment.

Misalignment of Power and Control

In all projects, whoever controls the money has the power.  In the private sector this is the same person that is ultimately responsible for delivery.  Not so in the public sector.  Non-profits have no profit and therefore no investment funds.  These organisations are reliant on donations, government departments or agencies.  This is where the power lies, but those controlling the purse strings are not responsible for implementation.  This makes decision-making much more confusing than it needs to be.

Commander’s intent

Politics and good project management don’t go well together.  When you need something to ‘announce’ you need clarity and results that, if not immediate, are certainly to be expected shortly.  The trouble is that, at the ‘announcement’ stage of a project, clarity is the last thing you have and, if you’re honest, you don’t know when the results will appear.  Try announcing that to a critical media!  It’s not difficult to see how figures and timescales are plucked from thin evidence and, once announced, become fact.  It’s equally obvious why this leads to problems.  But before you blame politicians, ask yourself whether it’s not us, the citizenry, that are to blame.  After all, it’s us that demands certainty when none exists and are so intolerant of errors.  If it were otherwise journalists would have no story and politicians would admit their mistakes.


Fear of failure is a good motivator.  If there are no consequences for failure, if no one is sacked, then don’t be surprised if failures are common.  When things go wrong, as they always do in projects, you need a team that will do whatever it takes to put things right.  That level of motivation is frequently not there in the public sector, partly because there is a little link between effort and reward but also because the fear isn’t there.

What is the lesson from these stories?  Don’t ask government to do anything.  They’re rubbish at it.  Governments are best at law-making.  The Executive arm of government should act as one big procurement / regulating body, outsourcing almost everything to private organisations.  This is the direction we are travelling, just very slowly.

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