We do have a few advantages, perhaps the greatest being that we don’t have a strategic plan
Obliquity . . . or indirectness of means is a subject to which it turns out I’ve given a lot of thought over the years going back at least to Charles Lindblom’s attacks from the 1960s on upon what he called the ‘synoptic’ method of policy decision making. This approach thinks of the ideal policy process as a kind of giant cost-benefit analysis. I had a (rather inarticulate) crack at some of the issues here. I’m pleased to see that the very terrific John Kay has now written a book about it using a wealth of illustrations from his extensive knowledge of history of various corporates with which he’s been engaged, or which he’s studied.
Anyway there’s a problem here for people on John Kay’s side of the fence – like me. The problem is that one spends one’s time poking holes in propositions which seem like the very acme of reason. You see John Kay has a jaundiced view of ‘evidence based’ policy. This is not, dear reader, because he or I think that we should have ‘faith based’ policy, or that we shouldn’t do away with evidence in our decision making.
Rather we think – or I think he thinks – that the current fad for evidence based policy, for strategy in which one determines one’s ends first and then goes hunting for the right means is not a good description of how we do make policy decisions, or could ever do so. The descriptions of policy making in which things are all described as if the process were a linear process of getting one’s priorities sorted and then rationally going about achieving them are fantasies and so serve more to disorient strategic thinking and discussion than they serve to enlighten. Here’s an example of this kind of thinking. It all has the ring of commonsense about it, and to the extent that it’s commonsensical who could object. But I think it conceals more than it reveals.
Andrea DeMaio, for whom I have a very high regard, also engages in this kind of – let me be bold and call it – ‘cheap rationalism’ when he says that Government 2.0 is just a set of tools, a means, not an end in itself. Well yes, there’s some sense in saying that, but then there’s some sense in quibbling with it too. This was my response on Adrea’s post.
It’s easy to say that one should adapt one’s means to the ends one wants, but you’ve already said that you don’t know what the shape of the ends will look like. Which raises a problem don’t you think?
Often means are important and it’s important that they conform to certain values. Government is structured in this way since we understood the importance of separation of powers. Throughout government decisions are not just means to ends, it’s important that they ‘make sense’ in and of themselves – particularly in a world full of unintended consequences.
Government is shot through with this – and it should be. Judges make decisions based on a mix of values, principles, consequences etc. A freedom of information act isn’t just a means to an end, the power of its values is one of its driving forces.
So I think Government 2.0 is also powered by its appeal to shared values. That’s one of the ways we try to navigate when – as you’ve indicated in your post – we don’t really know where we’re going – we’ve just got hunches.
Kay has written about obliquity before, and says that his interest goes back to 1996. Now he’s published a book on the idea, from which the Financial Times has an abstract. I look forward to reading it, but here are a couple of key paras from his article in the FT.
[T]he idea that good decisions are the product of orderly processes – is more alive than ever in public affairs. The success of the physical sciences has encouraged us to believe there might be a science of decision-making. With its aid, all kinds of problems could be managed objectively. Such a procedure would lead every conscientious person to the same answer. As a result, both political and personal disputes could be resolved by the collection of evidence and the pursuit of rational discourse.
There is not, and never will be, such a science. Our objectives are typically imprecise, multifaceted and change as we progress towards them – and properly so. Our decisions depend on the responses of others, and on what we anticipate these responses will be. The world is complex and imperfectly known, and this will remain true however much we analyse it.
We do not solve problems in the way the concept of decision science implies because we can’t. The achievement of the great statesman is not to reach the best decision fastest, but to mediate effectively among competing views and values. The achievement of the successful business leader is not to articulate visions of the far future, but to match continuously the capabilities of the firm to the changing market environment. The test of financial acumen is to navigate successfully through irresolvable uncertainties. . . .
Our approaches are iterative and adaptive. We make our choices from a limited range of options. Our knowledge of the relevant information and of what information is relevant, is imperfect. Different people make different judgments in the same situation, not just because they have different objectives, but because they observe different options, select different information, and assess that information differently; even with hindsight it will often not be possible to say who was right and who was wrong. . . .
It is hard to overstate the damage recently done by leaders who thought they knew more about the world than they did – the managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the pursuit of shareholder value; the architects and planners who believed that cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper; and the politicians who believed they could improve public services by the imposition of targets. They failed to acknowledge of the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated them. . . .
Successful decision-making is more limited in aspiration, more modest in its beliefs about its knowledge of the world, more responsive to the reactions of others, more sensitive to the complexity of the systems with which it engages. Complex goals are generally best achieved obliquely.