Book extract

If we can put a man on the moon

Avoiding the same old traps is an extract from the book, If We Can Put A Man On The Moon, that looks at policy mistakes and successes initiated by various American governments and the lessons that can be learned from them
eggers_oleary William D Eggers and John O' Leary

Avoiding the same old traps

The public sector is honing an unsavoury penchant for inspiring cynicism. In the United States, it's hard to think about government undertakings without conjuring images of Katrina relief or Iraq reconstruction. Likewise in the UK, high-profile, public falls from grace – tax credits, the Child Support Agency, and MPs' expenses scandal – quickly come to mind.

Only 23% of Americans trust their government to do the right thing, and in the UK, the numbers are equally grim. Voters simply don't believe that government can get big things done anymore, and changing their minds won't be easy.

The cynicism is understandable. Government's difficulty in executing large, complex undertakings is becoming a pattern. Time and time again, public officials fall into the same traps, a set of snares that doom their well-meaning initiatives to failure. Until our leaders start to recognise these traps and take steps to avoid them, we'll see more failures than successes.

Tolstoy Trap: Also known as confirmation bias, the Tolstoy Trap occurs when policymakers cast aside inconvenient facts that challenge their existing beliefs. The Tolstoy Trap leaves ideology unchecked, and the absence of a devil's advocate can be fertile ground for bad ideas.

Significant policy successes can occur when policymakers cross ideological boundaries. For example, a Democratic president worked with a Republican Congress to introduce welfare reform in 1996 – a huge success. Ken Livingstone, a socialist mayor concerned about the environment, adopted the market reforms of traffic congestion charging. Likewise, a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature used market-based reform to expand health care in Massachusetts.

Exchanging ideas with those who see the world differently promotes healthy policies.

Design-free design: Many so-called implementation failures are actually byproducts of faulty design. Today, policy design is largely disconnected from the implementation process.

In 1998, the California legislature unanimously voted to restructure the state's electricity system. Within two years, blackouts were rolling across the state and bamboozling California consumers to the tune of $40 billion. Why? The bill was crafted to pass through the legislative wringer, but it wasn't designed to work in the real world.

The solution is to treat legislation as a design process rather than a bill-drafting exercise. That means allowing the implementers to scrutinise the design, scoping out issues that will cause them problems down the road.

Overconfidence Trap
: In the public sector, everything is harder than it seems. Those who fall into the Overconfidence Trap consider only the best-case scenario and plan with unrealistic budgets and impossible timelines.

The Iraq war is a classic example. Reconstruction was supposed to be easy, and as a result, the administration gave scant attention to what might happen after the "shock and awe" subsided. Enforced optimism meant there was no Plan B.

By contrast, planning for the possibility of failure improves the likelihood of success. Transport for London war-gamed extensively before implementing traffic congestion. They were fanatical about mapping and mitigating every conceivable risk. By taking failure seriously, London successfully launched the largest traffic congestion charging initiative ever.

Voters have ample ground for frustration with the public sector's inability to accomplish big, important tasks. Restoring lost faith will hinge on the government's ability to narrow the gap between promises and results. Enough good intentions permeate the public sector to pave an expressway. We'll only achieve the results we want, however, when initiatives stop succumbing to the same old traps.

William D. Eggers is the global director of Deloitte's Public Sector research program. John O'Leary is a research fellow at the Ash Institute of the Harvard Kennedy School. Their new book is If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government (Harvard Business Press, 2009)

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