Best Practice
June 27, 2012

The traps that cause government failure

If We Can Put A Man On The Moon
William Eggers and John O’Leary
Harvard Business Press, 296 pages, $26.50

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, it was government that got him there. U.S. President John F. Kennedy had set out the vision, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration delivered. It may have been seen as a triumph of capitalism over communism, but it was also a triumph of democratic government.

Of course, Hurricane Katrina showed another side of the American government. And there are many other lapses by governments at all levels in North America that suggest even if government can put a man on the moon it fails at plenty of other endeavours. Indeed, many people feel governments are incompetent and certainly there is a prevailing sense that government is failing on the important stuff too often.

“There is indeed ample historical evidence that democratic governments can achieve great things. There is also ample evidence that democratic governments can fail in their attempts. The requirements for achieving great things are two simple but far from easy steps – wisely choosing which policies to pursue and then executing those policies. The difference between success and failure is execution,” William Eggers, the global research director for Deloitte’s public-sector practice, and John O’Leary, a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, write in If We Can Put A Man On the Moon… Getting Things Done In Government.

The failures, they observe, come not because of the people but because of the process. So they decided to study the process behind 75 major public initiatives, some of which were great successes and some of which were monumental failures. The study, which was heavily American, looked at things such as the success of the acid rain program, the struggles of immigration reform, the war on poverty, the actual wars in Iraq and Vietnam, as well as London’s effort to reduce traffic through congestion pricing. It also included two horrific failures by the same government space agency that gloriously put humans on the moon, the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

They found nearly all the initiatives followed a predictable path, which they call, optimistically, The Journey To Success:

  • The undertaking must start with a good idea.
  • The idea must be given specifics, often in the form of legislation, becoming an implementable design.
  • The design must win approval, often in the form of legislation, signalling a moment of democratic commitment. They call that moment when democratic possibility becomes reality The Stargate.
  • There must be competent administration.
  • The initiative must generate desired results.
  • Over time, both what is being done and how it is being done must be subjected to re-evaluation.

That’s how it can go right. But sometimes – perhaps often – it doesn’t. The journey to success goes awry. When that happens, they found it is often because of one or more of seven recurring pitfalls – “hidden snares embedded in the terrain of the public sector,” as they put it. Those seven deadly traps are:

  • The Tolstoy Trap: The Russian author popularized the notion that we see only what we are looking for, often while staying blind to what is really in front of us. We are hardwired to avoid inconvenient facts. This is particularly true on political subjects, where ideology can blind – all the more these days, with the resurgence of ideologically driven news media. The book’s opening example is of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford who failed to whip inflation because they based their remedies on the flawed notion that inflation is a psychological phenomenon and ignored the role of the money supply. But a better example might be President George W. Bush, of whom comic Stephen Colbert said: “The greatest thing about the man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday – no matter what happened on Tuesday.” This trap occurs primarily at the ideas stage, as politicians and policymakers seek confirmation of their pre-existing beliefs as they plan the initiative.
  • The Design-Free Design Trap: Many legislators and other public officials don’t see the legislative process as a design process in which effectiveness is the key concern. Most policy ideas – this is probably more true in the United States than Canada given the greater role of individual legislators in formulating bills – go straight from the idea stage to the drafting of legislation without the exacting design process and business case analysis that is nearly standard in the private sector before launching a new product or service. The focus in preparing the legislation is on getting enough votes to get it passed – or to have it supported by a restive public – and the authors say the result is often legislation that shows fundamental flaws when put to the test in the real world. “The bill gets passed but the design is unworkable,” they observe.
  • The Stargate Trap: On the long-running sci-fi television series Stargate, by taking a single step through the big circular ring that creates a wormhole in space, someone instantly travels into a new world. There, the people are different, the customs are different, and a new set of bad guys are waiting. It’s the same as you approach the moment of democratic commitment on legislation, and the lobbyists and other interests clamour for attention. “A lot of good policy fails to become reality because it can’t get through the political Stargate, and some pretty bad stuff gets baked into otherwise sound bills in order to win passage. The challenge is to get a policy through with your integrity unscathed, with your idea intact, and with a design that actually can be implemented,” they write.
  • The Overconfidence Trap: Voters tend to prefer self-confident, can-do leaders. But that confidence can become overconfidence – and lead to disaster in the implementation phase. “More failures we studied fell into this trap than any other. When they’re overconfident, public leaders sometimes don’t take the sort of prudent steps they should to ensure successful execution,” the authors report. London Mayor Ken Livingston was the opposite: he was fearful of what could go wrong in implementing his congestion pricing scheme for the city, and had a tireless team running simulations and preparing for every possibility, which meant the actual operation was remarkably smooth.
  • The Sisyphus Trap: According to myth, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge rock up a steep hill but before he could reach the top of the hill the rock would roll back down again, forcing him to begin again. Public sector leaders often find themselves like Sisyphus when they fail to realize that getting things done in government is not merely a systems problem or a policy problem but also a people problem. The Double Sisyphus Trap – twice the difficulty – comes when government tries to change human behaviour, as with drug rehabilitation programs, teen pregnancy prevention programs, or job training programs. The Sisyphus Trap can occur anywhere but most commonly occurs in the results phase.
  • The Complacency Trap: In our modern world, conditions change fast, but democracy can be slow. That means you need to regularly re-evaluate programs and policies to make sure they still make sense, as with sunset legislation and policy reviews. But too often complacency sets in, and programs are unchanging. The authors note that unemployment insurance and social security date back to the 1930s, and health insurance in the United States to a World

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