Brexit decision making in three minutes

I once got myself into some trouble with the government’s Cabinet Office.

The, then, Government Chief Social Scientist had addressed the annual conference of my professional association – the UK Evaluation Society. Now we are made up of people who typically evaluate – work out the quality and worth – of social and educational programmes. You have a new school curriculum or nurse training programme – we will evaluate it. You have a novel community development scheme or overseas aid initiative – we analyse and report on those, too. We were berated by the Cabinet officer for not reducing our reports to half a side of A4 – the most a minister might read, at best. I later wrote in our Newsletter that this actually pointed to a failure of the civil service and a dismaying exhibition of the will to control elected ministers by feeding them simplified versions of what are usually complex messages. ‘Yes, Minister,’ so to speak. I was indirectly informed that the Chief Social Scientist was highly displeased with me and expected an apology. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what I might apologise for…!

So to the UK Cabinet – that cockpit of the Mother of Parliaments. It is reported that it held its first “proper discussion” (The Guardian, 19.12.17) of Brexit outcomes. The meeting lasted 85 minutes and 25 ministers spoke. That’s an average of three minutes each, allowing for introductions, stumbles, comfort-breaks, pauses and closures.

There is much to make of this.

First off, note that we are 18 months on from the Brexit decision. This government is aggressive in insisting that public sector action is driven – and measured for its quality – by outcomes – predicted results. Under some government schemes (e.g. Social Bonds) payment is substantially dependent on meeting predicted outcomes. A moment’s thought will tell you that multifaceted and often highly contested programmes – think of youth offending, traffic schemes, cladding for high-rise social housing, refugee support – that such programmes do not easily give way to simple and simply-predicted outcomes. Indeed, the history of what are often known as ‘payment-by-results’ schemes is one of corruption, distortion and manipulation just to ensure we end up with the right results.

[For an extreme, but not wayward, example, look at the ‘Kids for cash’ scandal in Luzerne County, PA, in which two judges were paid by a for-profit private prison to send adolescents to incarceration. The prison was keeping up with its payment-by-results obligations.

However, as soon as the government itself faces the complexity and near-impossibility of resolving competing tensions – which it regularly visits on the public sector – it flees from the outcomes model and steeps itself in process and procedure.

Quite right, too. To become intimately informed of the complexities of decision and action, and develop a tolerance of uncertain consequences, before setting objectives is exactly what we should all be doing. Otherwise, we are forever chasing a McGuffin (Google it). This is the way to improve the quality of decision-making – forgetting, for a moment, the decision itself. By now the UK government is roundly aware of the complexities, paradoxes, limitations and possibilities that surround leaving the EU. This is the appropriate moment to work out what makes sense aiming for. We should all be so blessed with a tolerance for process over outcome.

Having so advantaged itself with intimate knowledge and wisdom one might expect our political elite to enter into the kind of consensus-building deliberation and thought-experiment that would move us beyond slogans and battle-standards to responsive and effective decision making.

In 85 minutes? With three minutes each? For setting outcomes of such deep complexity and profound consequence?

Of course not. And nor was that the point. The point was to establish the lowest common denominator – the minimum consensus that would avoid more posturing and leave as much as possible for behind-the-scenes jockeying. This was not at all a deliberative occasion. Any meeting that lasted 85 minutes in my previous universities was either a rubber-stamping of decisions already made, a ritual, a failure of chairing skills or a message that no discussion is to be permitted on the topics. Indeed, to signal a short meeting one typically fills the agenda with too many items to allow people home in time for tea – participants will race through it. To signal a long meeting with extensive discussion you table just one item.

This all speaks volumes and from deep wells of dismay at the quality of decision making at the highest reaches of government. Increasingly, it sounds as though argumentation, the exploration of alternatives, consensus building and persuasion are what is expected of us, the electorate, but not of the political classes. In that realm, ideas are held as convictions, as cris du coeur, as non-negotiable assertions – as provocations. An idea is not one that can open up a conversation of indeterminate length, but one that can be encapsulated into three minutes and then set aside.

The image also contains one of ministers as busy people, and, according to that Chief Social Scientist, too busy to interact with detail and complexity. They enjoy the license to act speedily, they supposedly have the skills to weigh up and pitch in with rapidity – their decisions are the more efficient, with heightened capacities to cut through the undergrowth to see more clearly than the layperson the path ahead. Behind the politician mill countless advisers who have dealt with the detail, an efficient system of filters leaving ministers with the essential qualities of an argument, crystallisations of what we only see as blurrings and double, even triple vision, overlapping options and deep uncertainty. This is the true essence of British public school thinking – a dull Platonic idea that the ruling classes are somehow illuminated, that they have access to ineffable truths of which we can be only barely aware. The abject distortion of representative democracy, so well articulated by Tony Blair: ‘you elected me, now leave me to get on with the job’.

Dream on.

Such a system, enshrined in the way Cabinet operates, could not be designed better to lead to ineffective decision-making – ineffective, that is, in responding to realities and to the challenges of practice. Those advisers are not filters so much as a length laundry-cycle, washing out any complexity, contestation and difference that might make a minister pause and have the urge to speak for more than three minutes. The result is a discontinuity that is replicated right down through the ‘performance-managed’ public services: the managerial class live in a world of solutions which it transmits to practitioners who receive them as new problems to be resolved in action. The managerial classes luxuriate in optimism and positive feedback – because each day, in every way, they emit what they perceive to be a ‘solution’. The practitioner is burdened with the knowledge that at any moment yet another challenge will arrive that pays little respect to the realities of resource and experience.

Yes, three minutes and half a side of A4 will just about do it.




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