Complexity, reducibility, integrity and bullshit: the general untheory


Some readers may recall an earlier post which I christened an ‘untheory’ of innovation. It argued that there’s not much use in ‘theories’ of innovation if they’re taken as recipe books for senior managers to ‘drive down’ innovation through organisations. Why? Because if innovation is to thrive, endless decisions must be made to facilitate any number of different innovations and it can’t be known in advance who should be co-ordinating those decisions. An innovation might involve some slight or pronounced change in accounts, marketing, technical specifications, supplier relations, training, industrial relations and on and on. For these decisions to be made well – or as I like to say ‘on the merits‘ – all sorts of pathologies must be overcome:

There are hierarchies, there’s groupthink, there’s second guessing hierarchies, there’s trying to keep people happy and consensus at any cost, there’s ‘not invented here’, there’s ‘not in my backyard’ there’s excessive risk-aversion (though it’s usually aversion to a certain kind of risk, which is the product of another pathology – process hugging) and other manifestations of status quo bias, there’s adulation of those with high status either within a hierarchy or the wealthy and powerful over the less so and on and on.

That’s why I’ve argued that one of the most useful things one might do as far as ‘teaching’ management or innovation is concerned, is to coach managers not with the usual flattering stories of how far sighted heroic managers were, but rather with unflattering stories which highlight the foibles of our understanding – and offer means of overcoming them. What I’m arguing for is a recognition of the irreducibility of the on the ground experience – its lack of susceptibility to systematic, theoretical insight and its management corollary – policies adopted and driven from the top.

There are any number of areas in which we wave away the possibility of such irreducibility and instead embrace an empty and deluded kind of managerialism in which those at the top are forever attending strategy sessions, restructuring, reengineering and all the rest of it. Progress is not made (and as an aside, cannot easily be measured or ranked) because a lot of the progress that is necessary is sui generis and made at the coalface – or at least must involve the giving the coalface and autonomy to solve its problems and push for improvements.

Some other areas where this jumps out at me are:

  • Regulation: The central agencies and in their specific areas, line departments and the business equivalent – the peak bodies – will all need some managerialist schtick with which to beat over-regulation. Thus for instance a few years ago the BCA wanted to rev up the troops on regulation. So it got Access Economics to do a report on the state of play. How did it do it? It took the reg review manual about the need for robust regulation of the way regulators make regulation and then assessed each of the States’ regulatory performance against the set of quick and dirty criteria it had run up. Of course it didn’t actually attend to the quality of specific regulation – because the vast bulk of it made that practically impossible. But everyone treated the report as a pretty serious exercise, even though one might be suspicious of the efficacy of the entire regulatory review apparatus. Further, the topic of ‘regulation’ is truly immense. It isn’t just ‘red tape’ – though that itself is a broad enough topic. Regulation in general is a truly immense subject surely the oldest and most important arm of government. To take a small snapshot we’re talking about regulation regarding the environment, work health and safety, product safety, consumer and investor protection, labour market regulation. In all these areas broad ideological preferences are of limited use – particularly where there’s so much substantive agreement between the mainstream parties, despite their grand rhetoric (mostly about the supposed extremes of their opponents) – and what matters is individual examples and the way they influence life on the ground.

As I argued in an article recently:

Policy discussion typically conceives of markets as comprising competitive firms subject to state regulation. In areas like education, health, aged care, city planning, research, the arts and legal services, output is better thought of as the joint product of competitive and collective (collaborative and regulatory) activity. Each sector requires the evolution of quite different institutions in which public and private, competitive and collaborative considerations concatenate at every level from high policy down to the life-world of workplaces.

That’s not a world in which helicopter views are of much use, particularly the all-purpose helicopter views of high ideology.

  • Ethics: We seem to have a need to ensure that ‘research’ by which we mean Very Serious Research done by Very Serious Research Agencies (VSRAs) is done ethically. We have no such scruples about media coverage, or marketing research. Nor does a VSRA do an ‘ethics approval’ on whether or not to privatise the benefit of some potentially life saving new technology by patenting it. Forsaking some largely publicly funded VSRA’s interests in the public interest isn’t ethics, that’s just being a mug. And there are no such scruples about what happens within programs themselves. So you can ask families sensitive questions as part of a family support service, but you just can’t get a VSRA to evaluate it, without spending many months on the ethics of asking those questions.Be that as it may, one might imagine that one way to do ethics approval might be to have a group of people representing those whose interests might be affected by the research and engage them to make sure they’re OK with it. Instead we have an overarching policy at the top of the apex – the NH&MRC guidelines which, run to nearly eighty pages.If you think, as I do, that ethics is the often difficult process of making tradeoffs against different values, then you might find this process is a kind of anti-ethics procedure as the guidelines are full of rules and absolute rather than relative commandments such as this one: “The wellbeing and care of the woman who is pregnant and of her fetus always takes precedence over research considerations”. So much for other values – like the wellbeing of millions of other pregnant women and fetuses – and maybe some non-pregnant women or even men – who might benefit from research.
  • Research impact: We all know that outputs are more important than inputs.  And research outputs are therefore more important than research inputs. And research outputs are learned articles and books and we can measure these outputs and their quality – well something a bit like their quality – which is the prestige of the journal they’re published in and their popularity as academic footnote linkbait.So we’ll run with that. The fact that these might not be very good measures, that it borders on the absurd to assume that one article, or one citation is equivalent to another, that over time they are easily gamed and that the process of gaming progressively corrupts the value of the outputs not to mention the culture of the enterprises producing the research. That it embeds a deep mono-disciplinary intellectual conservatism into academia around existing disciplines and their commanding heights in the journals in which at the very least one risks all to develop original insights and hypotheses that might take a long time to test and that one can’t get credit for original and fertile departures from the orthodoxy – well you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
  • Management: Should there be strong leadership, or more permissive leadership, strong direction from KPIs rising up through the hierarchy or greater devolution of decision making and decentralisation. Who knows? It depends on the circumstances, which includes the personnel involved, the history of the organisation(s) involved etc etc.

My untheory of the irreducibility of innovation – which focuses on the importance of decision making on the merits at all levels within a system – reveals why two of the things that tend to characterise innovative organisations are flat management structures – with shorter lines of communication, fewer opportunities for middle managers to veto good ideas – and intrinsic motivation. Both increase the likelihood of decision making being made on the merits. (I spoke about a little of this at the launch of Melbourne Knowledge Week a week or so ago and Peter Doherty who was also on the panel made a similar point about science – that it’s ‘bottom up’ knowledge – that it pays ultimate attention to the world of experience. For me the analogue in management is decision making on the merits).


Here’s a lament of modern times from nineteenth century American poet Longfellow presumably about something similar.

In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

The appeal is to the intrinsic motivation of the craftsman in his craft. (It also conjures up Adam Smith’s idea of the impartial spectator – the “man within the breast”.) And central elements of craft are irreducible – sui generis. Of course the craftsman will be guided in what he builds by the master builder or architect of a building. The master builder (or architect or whomever else it is) is ‘boss’ of the project, deciding whether to build a cathedral or a bridge and all sorts of aspects of the workflow. Professionalism was built from this ethos in the nineteenth century, with its notions of fiduciary duty and so on (which is not to say that professionalism didn’t come with some downsides in which professions put their own collective interests above those of their clients). But within that context the craftsman or professional has autonomy over his craft and its application to the work. He won’t be told how to do his craft by someone who is more senior in the project but not as knowledgeable about the craft and not involved in the detail of his work.

In fact the Longfellow quote – it’s a slight misquote but let’s leave that be – was a favourite of Wittgenstein who had an Orwell like abhorrence for the thoughtless clichés of ordinary and official life. And I ran into the Longfellow quote from an article that cited Frankfurter’s essay “On Bullshit” which I’ve quoted before. The article was called “Linux vs. Bullshit” and it sought to emphasise one of the great merits of open source production was its attention to coding on the merits – that is without secondary (corporate) agendas. It also cites Eric S. Raymond – author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar – who focuses on the significance of intrinsic motivation for the production of good software.

And bullshit is an elemental constituent of the world we have built and are continuing to build which is so inimical to decision making on the merits. It’s essence is the very lack of fastidiousness or craft/professionalism it embodies. As Frankfurter goes on:

Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case not wrought.

Imagine you’re a journalist who has to cover a story on red tape and regulation. Or a politician who has to have something to say on it – or a bureaucrat within government or the BCA who has to come up with a policy on it. What are you going to do? You can’t just sit there and say “I don’t really know”, or “nobody knows more than a tiny part of the puzzle”. Deloitte will be putting its finger I the air and estimating the cost of regulation to the whole economy ($250 billion p.a. since you ask). Why saving just 10 per cent of it would be a huge micro-economic reform. What are you going to say? (Quick, you’re on Insiders on Saturday, cameras will be rolling. Remember, John Kerrin got sacked in the early 90s recession when journalists asked him when the recession would end and he said “Your guess is as good as mine”).

Well there’s only one way through. As the philosopher Henry Frankfurter puts it in his essay:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled, whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others, to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

And so, here we are, in a world in which commentators comment, experts proclaim their expertise, and the media supplies most of the general purpose commenters at least about issues it deems of apex importance like how our government is going. Yet a great many of the topics they discuss, such as the ones I’ve identified above are completely ill-suited to such treatment. And so the public discussion we get of them is more or less pure bullshit. And the way we manage those issues goes in endless increasingly sterile circles of bald assertion barely disguising incomprehension, rising disaffection leading to some change intended to improve things. But the whole thing is pursued with such high handed impatience and incomprehension that the result is more of the same, and on and on.

Here’s something the British Chambers of Commerce said in 2007 in their publication “Deregulation or Déjà Vu?” (See also this link):

Both Conservative and Labour administrations approach deregulation with apparent enthusiasm, learn little or nothing from previous efforts and have little if anything to show from each initiative.

Now if you’re trying to make a living in such a world, would you rather be a craftsman or a bullshit artist – will you go into – say – engineering, teaching, nursing, musicianship on the one hand or PR, head hunting, corporate strategy, marketing, media, events management on the other? Well if you feel born into any of the craftsman roles, you’ll prefer the former professions. You may not make as much money, but you’ll be happier doing something you were born for. But surely the more common situation is the person who could go either way, but who is more likely to reach their human potential and achieve life satisfaction plying a craft. But in the world we’re in, they won’t just make less money being the craftsman, they’ll be bossed around by people who have little understanding of their job or sympathy with them (or be the subject of professional forces that have been built by similar people – like ‘research quality frameworks’ for academics for instance).

They’ll be restructured, reengineered, performance managed – taken advantage of. And so lots of the good ones leave. (Long before the age of Teach for Australia, or even Teach for America, I was a self-funded Teach for Australia grad, which is to say I wanted to teach for about three years as a worthwhile life project. I’m very glad I did, but not only did I have to do this in a world that was built for career teachers – a full year of training for three years of practice – but when I was there virtually all the teachers in the schools I taught in were incredulous. Like weary soldiers in the trenches in WWI they said to me “You’re bright – you’ve got your head screwed on. Get out before it’s too late”.

It’s difficult to regulate well. But rest assured when it is done well, no-one notices – no-one in the stratosphere that is. So the person who works out how to regulate really well won’t be promoted to a more senior regulatory position. For there is no ‘Regulator General’ and if there were the job would go to someone else. They might be able to run an econometric model – though they’re surprisingly rare in an age of bureaucratic generalists – but they’d be someone who’d made their way up through one of the Central agencies. And the great cult of managerialism in which symbolism and performativity at the top – so delightfully summed up by Gilbert and Sullivan “I polished that door so carefully that now I am the ruler of the Queen’s Navy” – simply rolls over the life world of experience smashing it up and flattening it out beyond all recognition.

Postscript: Speaking of bullshit, here’s the promo for ANZSOG’s annual conference this year.
anzsog2016_web_rotator_600x150-jpg-fontHyper-Government! Very impressive. Who knew?

Postscript Two: Bullshit, the interview.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Ethics, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

59 Responses to Complexity, reducibility, integrity and bullshit: the general untheory

  1. JJ says:

    Your untheory matches my experience, although I would note that it’s about culture and a lot of that comes from the leadership.

    This is SOOO accurate a description of the modern organisation. In the old days, we had craft-based bureaucracies eg MMBW, SEC. Doctors ran hospitals etc etc. Top management of these organisations or their equivalent (especially in universities!) have been replaced with managerialist positions (often economists). Language and discourse are suitably altered.

    Furthermore my impression is that the gap between the front-line and the top is huge (and bigger?). (I;ve just been reading a book by Prof Jeffrey Braithwaite about resilience where he talks about the need to reduce the gap between ‘Work as Imagined’ and ‘Work as Performed’.)

    Part of me wonders if it was ever thus? (a short read of C Northcote Parkinson and many other texts cautions one against railing against the present too much)

    Can it be changed?

    • Patrick says:

      In fairness, doctors are shit at running hospitals (don’t believe me? Visit a hospital: it probably is ran by doctors in Australia and it will be pretty shit; still don’t believe me: google “how did doctors learn to wash their hand”). Management is actually a craft and I’d rather managers run my hospital or my electricity company.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Yes I agree.

        So mine is not a naïve ‘let the professionals run the professions’ or ‘it was better back in the old days when professionals could be professionals’.

        The thing is that ‘managers’ is not really a profession – there are people who do it well and people who do it badly – and I expect that organisations are not very good at working out who to promote.

        But one thing that can be said, I think is that to successfully manage a medical agency or system is that you need to engage with doctors (and nurses and patients!).

        • MD says:

          I agree(partially) with both of you.

          Management got doctors to wash hands through campaigns that highlighted the risk to others (not themselves) appealing to their innate altruism.

          That said, “management” is routinely derided in hospitals by doctors because it is often a het up nurse with an MBA and a cheap pantsuit from Jigsaw that is intent on removing things e.g the good band-aids, free carparks, staff meals or the Nescafe Blend 43. They “win” by cutting costs not inspiring discretionary effort or casting an aspirational vision. Economic rationalism of this kinds in a hospital less a race to the bottom.

  2. john Walker says:

    Came across this quote the other day it seems relevant

    “If someone says the sky is green, you prove that it’s actually blue, and the next day he comes back once again insisting that the sky is green, and this happens repeatedly, you eventually have to acknowledge that mannerly debate about the color of the sky just isn’t enough; you have to go meta, and talk about the fact that this guy and his friends just aren’t in the business of honest discussion. Paul Krugman

    “content is fancy form” and that is hard work. BS on the other hand is easy. And that is the rub: you can demolish and bury BS, but it keeps on clawing its way back out of the ground, our term for the Art resale tax BS backers is the ‘undead’- how do you kill something that is not quite ‘real’?

  3. wilful says:

    Nicholas, as a former senior policy officer in the Victorian government, I absolutely agree with what has been said here. On many occasions I came up with better ways of doing things in my area, simplifications that would make either ours or the public’s life that little bit easier. I did this because I enjoyed my job and thought that was supposed to be part of it. I wasn’t unique of course, there were many other professionals like me who agreed with me. Yet very very few of these ideas ever saw the light of day. Why? Because the “clay layer” (impermeable substance) of senior managers and junior execs typically saw no immediate benefit for themselves, just more work to implement to reform, maybe some questioning of the status quo, maybe some risks, and they seemed to prefer lurching from crisis to crisis dealing with the crappy cobbled together solutions that were not their fault than having to put some resources into doing things differently. Partly for this reason, I have now left government…

  4. paul frijters says:


    you know I agree with most of this, though managerialism for me is entirely understandable: of course managers want to see themselves as infallible and in charge, particularly when they have no real clue as to what is going on and rightfully fear losing their over-priced job.

    To change this though, one needs a vision of how things could be different: a buzzword, a utopia, a story of change that people can draw hope from and that gives them an understanding as to how life could be different. For managerialism is now supported by lots of supporting habits: blind compliance taught to the next generation from a very early age, a top-down view of organisations, a hero-worship of the people at the top no matter how terrible they were in actuality, an acceptance of bullying by managers as part of ‘what you have to do to get things done’, etc. Managerialism fits into those habits and has greatly amplified them. It is now quite deeply embedded.

    People might agree from their own experience that you are talking about a real problem, but to change their choices for their children and their organisations, you need a vision. One that makes people feel cheated but that also offers hope.

    Myself, I have veered to the conclusion that managerialism is an outgrowth of our political system which increasingly produces and then awards unpriced favors, often in the form of favourable regulation. What the ICAC enquiry has unearthed with respect to land rezoning and mining concessions in NSW, where coalitions of private parties and politicians helped themselves to favorable mining concessions, land re-zoning, and other political favors worth a lot to private parties, is but a small part of a much broader phenomenon that now dominates our political scene. Similar favors explain the emergence of overpaid medical specialists, managers of education and health institutions, and huge superprofits in our financial industries.

    The key insight is that the favors are unpriced, ie something of worth is allocated but not for an open price, a missing market. As a result, coalitions emerge between politicians, civil servants, and private agents that capture these favors and keep them in small cliques. The cult of managerialism is then merely the device to protect those favors, to rationalise them, and to corner the spoils that essentially come from anti-competitive practices. This mechanism works inside ministries just as much as it works when granting monopolies to private agents. The mainstream economic solution would be to price those favors in open markets. The mainstream political solution is to somehow generate far more information on the merits of these favors and their allocation so that political decision making pays more attention to the public interest. I think more participatory democracy could help with that, but you might prefer other options.

    • Patrick says:

      That sounds mainly right Paul. I assume you mean doctors in general are overpaid, not the best? They are probably underpaid due to the inefficiencies of their industry!

  5. JJ says:

    I agree that managerialism is at least partly a response to drivers in our political and economic system. Can anyone suggest any interesting reading on this general theme?

    On the more specific question of doctors and hospitals, I don’t think there’s necessarily a simple answer. Understanding of the work of the hospital and ability to engage with doctors and nurses are clearly critical, but it is possible we’ve gone a bit far with generalists – this research raises questions:
    Physician-leaders and hospital performance: Is there an association?
    Although it has long been conjectured that having physicians in leadership positions is valuable for hospital performance, there is no published empirical work on the hypothesis. This cross-sectional study reports the first evidence. Data are collected on the top-100 U.S. hospitals in 2009, as identified by a widely-used media-generated ranking of quality, in three specialties: Cancer, Digestive Disorders, and Heart and Heart Surgery. The personal histories of the 300 chief executive officers of these hospitals are then traced by hand. The CEOs are classified into physicians and non-physician managers. The paper finds a strong positive association between the ranked quality of a hospital and whether the CEO is a physician (p<0.001). This kind of cross-sectional evidence does not establish that physician-leaders outperform professional managers, but it is consistent with such claims and suggests that this area is now an important one for systematic future research."

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    At least according to this story, US political voting is becoming more reducible, less subject to local differences.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This piece by Isabelle Allende is relevant to this discussion. I’m not necessarily saying it’s the wrong result at law, but it’s nevertheless illustrative of some of the things bemoaned in my post regarding managing craft by top down direction.

    In 2010 the sixth circuit upheld the firing of high school teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall when parents complained about an assignment in which she had asked her students in an upper-level language arts class to look at the American Library Association’s list of “100 most frequently challenged Books” and write an essay about censorship. The complaint against her centered on three specific texts: Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. (She was also alleged, years earlier, to have shown students a PG-13 version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.)

    The court found that the content of Evans-Marshall’s teachings concerned matters “of political, social or other concern to the community” and that her interest in free expression outweighed certain other interests belonging to the school “as an employer.” But, fatally, the court concluded that “government employees… are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes.” While the sixth circuit allowed that Evans-Marshall may have been treated “shabbily”, it still maintained (quoting from another opinion) that “when a teacher teaches, ‘the school system does not “regulate” [that] speech as much as it hires that speech. Expression is a teacher’s stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary.'” Thus, the court concluded, it is the “educational institution that has a right to academic freedom, not the individual teacher.”

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another quote I like and relevant to this thread.

    “So much of our manufactured environment testifies to carelessness . . . At the risk of sounding terribly sentimental, I do think one of the things that just compel us is that we have this sense that, in some way, by caring, we’re actually serving humanity. . . People might think it’s a stupid belief, but it’s a goal—it’s a contribution that we can hope we can make, in some small way, to culture.”

    Jonathon Ive

    This designer’s notion of ‘care’ is mine of ‘on the merits’, or rather the former is the precondition of the latter.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    For further reference – an article on the continuing division of labour and hyperspecialisation

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    We have a name! Brailsfordism

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Excellent expose of top down philanthropy and celebrity driven ‘transformation’ in education illustrating many of the themes above. After a pretty devastating description of how Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 mil to transform Newark education got spent we get this:

    This week, Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, announced a sleekly marketed $50 million education-focused project that also eschews incremental changes in favor of new models. Her plan involves encouraging teams of educators (and students) to submit plans for alternative ways to envision the high-school experience, the most impressive of whom will receive grants by next fall. As bold and invigorating as the ideas may be, her advisers are Obama appointees, celebrities, district administrators, start-up specialists, and corporate vice presidents—not teachers, principals, or public-school parents. Wealthy citizens who care about education in America will likely read The Prize. As they seek new ways to solve the problem, like good students, they should take its best lessons to heart.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:

    In conversation with the great new director of Australia’s Digital Transformation Office Paul Shetler, I realise that the area in which these issues are probably most compellingly illustrated is in modern IT as outlined in this article which Lucy Turnbull first drew my attention to – which bodes well!

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This post also has some good links etc on the subject and matters close to it – on the pathology of organisations.

  14. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This short vid is good on agile, which might be seen as an attempt to rework the sinews between up and down in hierarchies.

  15. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Here’s a nice illustration of some high grade bullshit from Michael Barber who marketed it to great effect as part of Tony Blair’s Third Way. The citation of “Osborne and Gaebler – Reinventing Government 1992” is a bit of a giveaway.

  16. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another example of dysfunction arises from poor practice generalised.
    Some bowdlerised view of theory develops in a discipline and then generates self-reinforcing dynamics against which people fulminate rightly – but to no effect. Thus McCloskey and Ziliak’s pointing out how statistical significance constantly trumps practical significance (the size of effects) and despite a devastating critique of it, they revisited the scene a decade later and (from memory) found that things had got very little, if at all better. Here’s Ziliac’s depressing latest on the state of affairs.

  17. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another ‘top down’ analysis of the impact of regulation on the economy. Wouldn’t want to get down into the weeds now would we? Note also how the analysis is at such a distance that one doesn’t get any idea of whether the regulations might be improved upon, or their relative costs and benefits.

  18. John walker says:

    The frequency of terms such as “must”, in federal regulations, sorted by industry categories, don’t , aparently , map to the frequency of people starting new businesses in those industries…. :-)

  19. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Actually John, the article you sent me a link to is relevant here.

    If you really wanted evidence about teaching quality, one of the least imperfect mechanisms would be inspection of the sort that used to be carried out by the now abolished Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools: that is to say, a visit by an experienced and impartial observer who actually sits in on a teaching session. A system of inspection presupposes that any genuine evidence of teaching quality can only ever be a matter of judgment not measurement. The TEF will not involve visits or any direct observation of teaching but will rely on metrics and on institutions’ self-descriptions.

    It struck me how much that speaks to the themes in this thread. Professional practice is supposed to be judged by standards that are strictly external to the profession. Of course if this reflected suspicion of an ‘inside job’, well and good, but the system it turns out is credulous about the gaming it’s setting up with the self-reported metrics it requires.

    • John walker says:

      Went to see the Big Short the other day (could be conformation bias) but there seems to be AAA rated certified psychic wealth ,everywhere these days. Not just in finance.

      Came out of the film thinking, how come most things still work ? Is it because the reality of most official (and academic) representations of things these days are not that important? I.e it doesn’t matter -nobody reads them or takes them seriously, anyway?

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        This is true of pretty much every system. If you spend any time in government you start wondering how anything could work. For me this is usually true of organisations generally. As I was arguing in my most recent post, or as I approvingly quoted someone else saying, the great thing we’ve done – in markets, in government and in knowledge is to move away from unitary understandings of these things to decentralised systems.

        It’s an old chestnut of a story in economics, though you’ve probably not heard of it that someone asked some economist – I can’t remember who, what capitalism economises on. The answer offered was “virtue”. Quite a good idea. Of course this little feature is also a bug!

    • John walker says:

      BTY the introduction to the article I sent you ( which was sent to me by Anne) raises a implicit ‘meta’ question re slow but continuous, incremental change and when does such incremental change reach a point where a major qualitative change has occurred . And in that example , ‘education’ no longer equals, education.

      It kind of reminded me of something in S J Gould’s intro to the Structure of Evolutionary Therory. Roughly Gould asked : if my family , of impeccable distant orthodox Jewish ancestry have gradually over the last hundred years come to “, religiously ” eating cheese burgers for lunch every day, does that mean that cheese burgers are , now , ‘Kosher’ ?

  20. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self: This post is also relevant – and I should have linked to it above – edicts from on high.

  21. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Interesting Wikipedia discussion of top down and bottom up elements of the French and German bureaucracy respectively.

    Both [top down and bottom up] approaches can be found in the organization of states, this involving political decisions.
    In bottom-up organized organizations, e.g. ministries and their subordinate entities, decisions are prepared by experts in their fields, which define, out of their expertise, the policy they deem necessary. If they cannot agree, even on a compromise, they escalate the problem to the next higher hierarchy level, where a decision would be sought. Finally, the highest common principal might have to take the decision. Information is in the debt of the inferior to the superior, which means that the inferior owes information to the superior. In the effect, as soon as inferiors agree, the head of the organization only provides his or her “face? for the decision which their inferiors have agreed upon.
    Among several countries, the German political system provides one of the purest forms of a bottom-up approach. The German Federal Act on the Public Service provides that any inferior has to consult and support any superiors, that he or she – only – has to follow “general guidelines” of the superiors, and that he or she would have to be fully responsible for any own act in office, and would have to follow a specific, formal complaint procedure if in doubt of the legality of an order.[10] Frequently, German politicians had to leave office on the allegation that they took wrong decisions because of their resistance to inferior experts’ opinions (this commonly being called to be “beratungsresistent”, or resistant to consultation, in German). The historical foundation of this approach lies with the fact that, in the 19th century, many politicians used to be noblemen without appropriate education, who more and more became forced to rely on consultation of educated experts, which (in particular after the Prussian reforms of Stein and Hardenberg) enjoyed the status of financially and personally independent, indismissable, and neutral experts as Beamte (public servants under public law).[11]
    The experience of two dictatorships in the country and, after the end of such regimes, emerging calls for the legal responsibility of the “aidees of the aidees” (Helfershelfer) of such regimes also furnished calls for the principle of personal responsibility of any expert for any decision made, this leading to a strengthening of the bottom-up approach, which requires maximum responsibility of the superiors. A similar approach can be found in British police laws, where entitlements of police constables are vested in the constable in person and not in the police as an administrative agency, this leading to the single constable being fully responsible for his or her own acts in office, in particular their legality.
    In the opposite, the French administration is based on a top-down approach, where regular public servants enjoy no other task than simply to execute decisions made by their superiors. As those superiors also require consultation, this consultation is provided by members of a cabinet, which is distinctive from the regular ministry staff in terms of staff and organization. Those members who are not members of the cabinet are not entitled to make any suggestions or to take any decisions of political dimension.
    The advantage of the bottom-up approach is the level of expertise provided, combined with the motivating experience of any member of the administration to be responsible and finally the independent “engine” of progress in that field of personal responsibility. A disadvantage is the lack of democratic control and transparency, this leading, from a democratic viewpoint, to the deferment of actual power of policy-making to faceless, if even known, public servants. Even the fact that certain politicians might “provide their face” to the actual decisions of their inferiors might not mitigate this effect, but rather strong parliamentary rights of control and influence in legislative procedures (as they do exist in the example of Germany).
    The advantage of the top-down principle is that political and administrative responsibilities are clearly distinguished from each other, and that responsibility for political failures can be clearly identified with the relevant office holder. Disadvantages are that the system triggers demotivation of inferiors, who know that their ideas to innovative approaches might not be welcome just because of their position, and that the decision-makers cannot make use of the full range of expertise which their inferiors will have collected.
    Administrations in dictatorships traditionally work according to a strict top-down approach. As civil servants below the level of the political leadership are discouraged from making suggestions, they use to suffer from the lack of expertise which could be provided by the inferiors, which regularly leads to a breakdown of the system after a few decades. Modern communist states, which the People’s Republic of China forms an example of, therefore prefer to define a framework of permissible, or even encouraged, criticism and self-determination by inferiors, which would not affect the major state doctrine, but allows the use of professional and expertise-driven knowledge and the use of it for the decision-making persons in office.

    • Patrick says:

      The last sentence is certainly interesting! I think that represents bottom-up expertise at work ;)

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        I’m not sure if you’re being ironic Patrick. I actually hadn’t read the last sentence and was so intrigued by the German example I just cut and pasted it – and there was the Chinese example.

        But it intrigues me that it’s possible that in a system that’s the very acme of top down, space can be made for expertise. In many ways we’ve been going in the opposite direction. If you look at universities and bureaucracies, generalists rise to the top stellar salaries while those who practice some discipline and show deep expertise are relatively speaking reduced to workers on the line!

        You’re more likely to find an economist at the top of the Health Department than a doctor, an economist at the top of an education department than a teacher. And the sad thing is that economics’ vantage point on these areas of practice is pretty distant and alienated from the ‘life world’ of those disciplines.

        That having been said I’m quite aware of how much of a mess doctors and teachers can make of a health or education system. But more reflective practitioners of those disciplines would surely be an ideal rather than Procrustean economists lopping off a few limbs of reality to make sure it fits their models.

  22. paul walter says:

    The last para is great.

    The sky is dark with Des Moore and other Platonic types, IPA preppies and ancient Murdoch hacks…so many the sunlight is mostly blotted out.

    And generalist pests, the academic equivalent of road kill or pot-bashers.

    And Patrick.

  23. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks JJ, but I don’t like the article. I start a little hostile to Das, because I’ve heard him say ill-informed things from time to time. But the thing about the article on its face is its simple reactionary nature. All the things he notes are certainly frustrating things about dealing with banks. But banks have hugely lowered their operating costs through automation – and for a vast number of transactions with them it’s actually a lot easier. Just going online and paying your bills is an example. But pointing out that the system mishandled his particular – somewhat unusual – transaction simply points to the failure of the system to have everything right. Not to the fact that his suggestions would work better for the bulk of bank transactions.

  24. paul walter says:

    Does the system really want things at optimum. Can you build in little opportunities for mark ups? Is your communication system not functional, so people with issues with you then give up?

  25. I mention ‘ethics’ above, but should also have mentioned ‘consents’, as I do here. Apropos of me being asked to agree not to mention 5,000 sensitive issues during interviews with students:

    One might write this off as just a pity, a small silly excess to which we have gone, but it is an example of a larger phenomenon that is becoming more and more evident and unfortunate – the domination of daily life with edicts from on high. In this case, an issue arises. Those at the top of the hierarchical system then get into ‘something must be done’ mode. It is time to issue instructions. So instructions are issued. The problem is that the issue may be one of considerable subtlety. In the case of regulation, we really need the people at the coalface to be thinking about the efficiency of what they’re doing within a larger whole. It’s very difficult for the top, or the centre to get this to happen – as it has to happen at the periphery, but no matter. We’ll issue instructions. All those making regulations must do a regulatory impact statement – to the letter of the thinking of those at the top, but alas not to the spirit.

  26. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another classic example is the much loved and hated so called “efficiency dividend” in government budgeting. It’s a completely arbitrary measure imposed from above in complete disregard for what’s happening below. As both the CIS and the CPD point out it’s a con in which hard decisions and accountability are avoided in favour of ‘bullshit’ efficiency (my expression, not theirs).

    Here’s the CIS:

    • The efficiency dividend is a blunt instrument for
    driving efficiency as it applies equally to efficient
    and inefficient agencies.
    • More than larger agencies, smaller agencies
    are put under greater pressure because
    they have difficulty achieving economies of
    scale, and have fewer resources to apply for
    additional funding (outside the reach of the
    efficiency dividend).
    • The efficiency dividend encourages gaming,
    where instead of cutting back on running costs,
    as is the intention of the dividend, agencies will
    submit new policy proposals so that the funding
    granted for these proposals can be used to cover
    existing as well as new costs. This also fuels the
    growth of unnecessary and ineffective programs.
    • New policies, programs and agencies are a
    fundamental driver of the growth of government.

    And here’s the CPD:

    Across-the-board cuts are supposed to drive savings found through buzz-words such as innovation, efficiency gains and increased productivity. In fact, such cuts are just as likely to inhibit innovation, reduce efficiency, and decrease productivity by simply leaving employees to do less with less. In complex public administration work, necessity is not always the mother of invention and budget cuts do not necessarily facilitate innovation. Doing ‘more with less’ often consists of cutting services; and where services are to be maintained, it consists in increasing the workload of those left standing.

  27. Nicholas Gruen says:

    To become an innovation-led economy and sustain a prosperous future for Australia, three interrelated sub-structures,
    or ‘pillars’, need to be aligned; culture, commercialisation and productivity. In relation to this, Swanson Reed and Wrays
    jointly facilitated four innovation café workshops in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in July and August 2015.
    Leaders from industry, academia and government were invited to speak on each pillar and hold an interactive discussion with
    the audience to discuss the opportunities and pitfalls in each pillar. On conclusion of the series, the thoughts and ideas of the
    250 audience participants were captured, collated and reviewed. The analysis of that feedback forms the basis of this paper.
    The Three Pillars
    I. Culture
    Culture is an essential foundation for innovation and was the second most commented theme at innovationCAFE
    2015. In reference to this, Professor Robert Clancy AM noted in the Sydney workshop that, “complacency is a
    major issue.” This is reinforced by fact that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
    ranked Australia the lowest out of the 25 countries measured for ‘level of public sector support to innovating firms’.
    Workplace culture must also adapt to encourage learning, allow failure and support innovators. Furthermore, the gap
    between our top performers and low performers is widening. Initiatives in the United Kingdom reveal how Government
    leadership and commitment to innovation engenders confidence to attract talent. Australia should follow this lead in
    encouraging and rewarding innovation.
    II. Commercialisation
    Forming a national vision and innovation culture may be the first step, but it will need to be supported by genuine
    measures, aimed at enabling innovation-minded businesses to develop ideas and bring them to market. Funding
    was amongst one of the most common issues from the innovationCAFE events. This is consistent with the Australian
    Innovation System Report 2014, where access to funds was the most commonly identified barrier to innovation in
    Australia2. A lack of a favourable commercialisation environment has seen a string of high profile start-ups leave
    Australian shores. Examples mentioned include Atlassian (moved to the UK; valued at US$3.3billion) and Nitro
    (relocated to San Francisco; 2013 turnover $25 million).
    The government again plays a key role in enticing and encouraging start-ups through better tax and regulatory
    support. These include policies such as, flexible visa options, R&D tax incentives and the patent box scheme. The
    patent box is currently not active in Australia, but has been successfully operating in countries such as the UK,
    Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. All of these policies are intended to promote and reward the attraction and
    retention of innovative talent and businesses to Australia.
    III. Productivity
    Key issues of concern that were commonly raised by attendees at the innovationCAFE events were a perceived lack
    of communication, connection, structure, collaboration and pathways between government, universities and industry.
    As innovationCAFE speaker Paul Jensen pointed out at the Melbourne seminar, “despite Australian universities
    being highly regarded, Australia is ranked just 29th out of 30 in the OECD in terms of businesses collaborating with
    universities on innovation”. In addition, attendees at the innovationCAFE seminars raised concern over a lack of
    incubators and hubs for innovative work to be undertaken.
    Since Silicon Valley has become the innovation epicentre of the world, it was suggested that enhancing and/or
    coordinating such hub areas within Australia will help start-up companies source the people and skills required to
    bring the desired economic benefits. Implementing a “collaborative economy” by linking industry and universities and
    other parties is, according to a report commissioned by Google, potentially worth $46 billion.

    from this website

  28. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This fantastically good review essay gives the perfect anecdote for illuminating the culture of bullshit.

    Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School is a fascinating document … Yale professor David Gelernter: “My students today are…so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are.… [I]t’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the twentieth century—just sees a fog. A blank.” Camille Paglia once assigned the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” to an English seminar, only to discover to her horror that “of a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name ‘Moses’.… They did not know who he was.”
    Once again, Khan uncovers the clue to this phenomenon by letting his St. Paul’s students speak for themselves:

    “I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.”
    “What do you mean, ‘how to think’?” I asked.
    “I mean, I learned how to think bigger. Like, everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”

    • Patrick says:


    • john Walker says:

      That student had done ” humanities ” ,and had learnt an indifference to human facts in all their gritty diversity.
      Shudder indeed.

    • john Walker says:

      The essay also says of this elite that they are: excellent haters.
      Could it be that an elite that is based on ‘ equality’ is one based on ,envy- That takes sorrow at others good fortune?

      “whose scrawniness seemed stuffed
      with all men’s cravings, sluggish with desires,
      who had made many live in wretchedness. ”

      Was it that scrawny wolf, that the Leopard was seeing when he spoke of ” little hyenas ” who will all be ” salt of the earth”

  29. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another great piece of evidence about the power of bullshit. HT Tyler Cowen.

  30. John walker says:

    While there must be many reasons for the growing extreme partisanship (and the fear – moral panic that seems underlie much of it ) Tyler Cowens understatement: ” changes in the media environment”. Surely has to be a big factor, no?

    The ‘web, has had one effect that is easy to overlook but is significant- in a web browser window on the typical hand held device, everything you see has much the same physical or visual ‘size’ and therefore it’s easy to loose a sense of scale-proportion.
    And time space, history is also ‘flattened ‘ by the web , that doesn’t help either.

  31. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Pretty obviously changes in the media ‘environment’ have some significance. But I think that’s overdone. I think we’re looking at yet another of those things that are solid that have melted into air.

  32. Nicholas Gruen says:

    At least in terms of the ideas developed in this post, the great Chris Dillow points out how our bullshit drenched economy is also likely bad for social mobility. Commenting on the growth in managerial and professional jobs and the fall in less skilled jobs he says:

    – It suggests that social mobility will be low. The cliché of a man rising from the post-room to the boardroom will become even rarer, not just because there are no longer any post-rooms but because the middling jobs a post-boy could have risen to are also declining. It’s hard to climb a ladder when the rungs are missing.

    • john Walker says:

      – It deepens the productivity puzzle. We might expect rising numbers of managers and professionals to be accompanied by rising aggregate productivity, if only as a compositional effect: managers and professionals have higher wages and so (in neoclassical theory!) are more productive. That this hasn’t happened makes it even stranger that productivity has stagnated.

      Not that strange if education is really about ‘qualification’ no?

  33. Nicholas Gruen says:

    More notes.

    Checkout this Auditor’s report on red tape reduction.

    Note that while the top level (bullshit) target of two legislative instruments out for one in was met – and indeed exceeded – the level of regulatory complexity (admittedly by the very crude measure of pages of regulation rose.

    Overall legislative regulatory burden increased, despite the numeric test being met
    Over the life of the ‘one-on, two-off’ initiative, the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) reported that overall net legislative regulatory burden increased by $16.1 million. Changes to the Public Health Regulation 2012 ($14 million), Fair Trading Regulation 2012 ($5.3 million) and the Tattoo Parlours Act 2012 ($0.5 million) drove this increase and the added regulatory burden from these changes was not significantly offset by reduced burden in other areas.

    The numeric test was met with 237 instruments repealed and 54 introduced – an overall ratio of roughly four repeals for every new instrument. However, most of these repeals related to redundant legislation with little or no regulatory burden.

    Legislative complexity increased
    The ‘one-on, two-off’ initiative did not reduce legislative complexity, as the stock of legislative regulation increased. The number of pages of legislation – a proxy indicator for statute complexity – increased over the life of the policy by 1.4 per cent per year on average. By comparison, over the preceding ten years, the number of pages of legislation had decreased by 1.1 per cent per year on average.

  34. Nicholas Gruen says:

    A little more bullshit – as I’ve just tweeted

    NGruen1: When I was a kid things went better with Coke

    Then Coke was it

    Now David Beckham’s perfume is “Beyond Forever”


  35. Nicholas Gruen says:

    And here.

    Nearly all workers have a supervisor or ‘boss’. Yet little is known about how bosses influence the quality of employees’ lives. This study is a cautious attempt to provide new formal evidence. First, it is shown that a boss’s technical competence is the single strongest predictor of a worker’s job satisfaction. Second, it is demonstrated in longitudinal data — after controlling for fixed effects — that even if a worker stays in the same job and workplace a rise in the competence of a supervisor is associated with an improvement in the worker’s well-being. Third, a variety of robustness checks, including tentative instrumental-variable results, are reported. These findings, which draw on US and British data, contribute to an emerging literature on the role of expert leaders in organizations. Finally, the paper discusses potential weaknesses of existing evidence and necessary future research.

  36. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another good example of #bullshit

    Strategic misrepresentation to obtain funding for mega projects

  37. Nicholas Gruen says:

    A report by the Institute for Government documenting some more spectacular government by bullshit moves in select areas.

    In our All Change report, we examine three policy areas where change has been especially acute: further education (FE), regional governance and industrial policy. In the FE sector, since the 1980s there have been 28 major pieces of legislation, 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities, and no organisation has survived longer than a decade. In the industrial strategy space, there have been at least two industrial strategies in the last decade alone – and we are now moving onto a third.

    The cost of all this reinvention – both human and economic – is high. In further education, thousands of students and employers are faced with a confusing and ever-changing set of qualifications, with no certainty that those same qualifications will exist a few years down the line.

    Creating a new department – often at short notice and poorly planned – costs £15m in the first year alone. Taking into account the temporary disruption to business, as people grapple with the logistics of creating a new department, the longer-term costs are substantially higher.

    The change and churn we describe is not only a result of shifting ideological preferences. Rather, this churn highlights some persistent weaknesses in our system of government.

  38. Pingback: The living and the dead – the arteries and the capillaries: Part One | Club Troppo

  39. Pingback: Gotcha Journalism as bullshit: Propaganda v anti-propaganda | Club Troppo

  40. paul frijters says:


    I happened to stumble accross the UN declaration of Human rights. It seems to fit your notion of bullshit above, no? If taken literally, they are ridiculous and meaningless. And if not taken literally, what are they?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I get your point I think, but I think they’re different. Not that I’m a bi one for formal definitions, but taking the definition of bullshit as talk that is largely for effect, not to achieve anything substantive, that doesn’t fit the declaration at all. The declaration is full of words that are intended to have an effect.

      To the extent they do, the way they have that effect, clearly requires some suspension of disbelief from the literal words, or some acceptance that they’re aspirations that won’t be met, but I can’t see that as too bad, or too bullshitty.

      I think you’re getting a bit closer with the Sustainable Development Goals though …

  41. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note Tyler Cowen’s comment “Often my best conversations are with doers and practitioners, rather than intellectuals and writers. The politics of the doers are typically difficult to discern or to boil down to simple classifications.”

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