Misadventures by design

“Are we on our way to or from first principles?” Plato (reportedly)

–Can there be any scarier phrase in all of public policy and management than “designing leadership”?

We are told we must design leadership:

  • Studies of actual project and policy implementation serve to ratify the status quo, claiming it is a miracle anything gets done as planned or designed (as if there were no design flaws in the first place); where also
  • Policymakers never have had time anyway for social science research findings (either the research finds nothing good to say or finds evidence-based interventions the only good worth saying); where also it’s been assumed that
  • Market-based instruments of management—outsourcing, vouchers, service level agreements, to name three only—determine the design of the public agencies responsible for their implementation, a rather unpromising assumption given the mountain of evidence that bureaucracy frequently determines policy; all of which is said to lead ineluctably to
  • Therefore, better policy and management require, by default, better leaders as our last line of defense; where, however,
  • Leadership looks more and more to be the unexplained variance after politics, dollars and jerks explain most of what is going on anyway. . .

So the fault-filled save-all of “designing” is shackled to the fault-filled catch-all of “leadership.” At this rate, the contortionists will win the fight to be their own worst enemy. Apparently, the fish rots from the head down in more ways than supposed.

–The promise to rid policy design of its flaws, or to ensure reliable policy governs reliable implementation on the ground, is an example of misdirection. By drawing our attention to the problem of better policy design, we miss the fact that such design has always been a weak guide to policy management; and that policy implementation is where much of that management has to take place. The farmer plowing the field in the Brueghel painting was right in not attending to Icarus, all hubris, crashing into and flailing about in the sea behind.

–The father of artist Max Ernst is said to have painted a picture of his garden but was so upset at having to leave out a tree for compositional reasons that he had the tree cut down in order to match the picture. I worked with project designers, engineers, ecologists and economists, who saw their worlds the same way. I still feel the shiver of shame of having had village trees cut down for a road that never came.

–I was involved in a college urban environmental project, where what students were taught and what they found on the ground were not just different but orthogonal:

  • Vacant lots were said to be ideal for community gardens but could not be used for gardening because prior use had rendered the soils toxic (that is why they were vacant);
  • Daylighting city creeks was recommended to improve public access to a restored natural area. Local residents preferred instead leaving creeks inaccessible rather than opening them to out-of-sight criminal behavior;
  • A clean-up campaign to reduce street litter became something more when the gloves distributed for the effort were pierced by discarded injection needles; and
  • Planting more trees along the street was touted as an ideal urban improvement, but in practice doing so raised liability concerns, ranging from tree roots buckling the sidewalk to cutting away those roots rendering the trees more prone to falling.

Teaching any ideal is worse than misleading if left on its own and not in the bright light of really-existing better practices.

–It is well and good we now understand better that the late 20th century development paradigm, termed the Washington Consensus, was “too formulaic” in its “standard package of free market policies – including openness to trade and investment, fiscal discipline, privatisation and deregulation”.

Nor by this point should it be surprising that the movement in understanding has been from macro-design “solutions” to contingency scenarios that temper the application of design principles across different cases. A World Bank Growth Commission argued, in this way, that there is increased understanding of the positive role that the public sector can play in economic growth, but that this varied case by case. As Michael Spence, Nobel economics laureate on that Commission, said, “No one set of policies will work in all circumstances. An effective strategy as far as I can tell is context specific, country specific, time specific”. ”. If you will, the function of localized contingency scenarios is to claw-back the relevance of macro-design to the specifics at hand. So far, so good.

It is quite another matter, however, to acknowledge that some cases of economic growth have neither as sufficient or necessary conditions what the World Bank colleagues recommended by way of promoting economic growth. “Better practices” are always in need of further modification by new or more complex cases.

–As long as the design of laws, policies and regulations are based in a priori principles (inevitable to my mind) and as long as better practices that emerge across a run of cases cannot be distilled into principles without a paralyzing loss of context-rich information (inevitable to my mind), macro-design remains a starting point for reliable behavior in a messy world, but never its end. There is no safe harbor for theory sheltered from the unruly seas of practice.

Or to put it the other way around, any macro-design that cannot be operationally redesigned, right now, is best thought of not as design but as surface pieties so void of content as to be outside any knowledge base for reliability with which humans are acquainted.

Either way, the sobering implication is: Mess and reliability management doesn’t stop; it’s ongoing, always.

–Sadly, many leaders neither understand or know this.

Leaders, you would expect, understand the well-documented unintended consequences arising out of market changes, innovations, and design interventions such as deregulation, market automation, changing environmental and quality standards, and lengthier planning and permitting processes for new infrastructure construction in the air, on the ground, and below.

Leaders, you’d think, know that major water infrastructures in the U.S. have for years been under the difficult “dual mandate” of introducing more complexity into large water systems via ecosystem restoration and stakeholder collaboration, while at the same time mandated to ensure continued service reliability of water supplies and quality to urban and agricultural end-users as well. You’d hope leaders already know that regional climate change can only add to the unpredictabilities that have to be planned for while having to be accommodated in real time, either by infrastructure control operators or emergency responders.

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