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Beyond Fragility – Thank You Taleb

26 Nov

I welcome Taleb’s thinking, at last,  someone who policy wonks follow is saying that public leaders need to act less, weave their way through problems by responding flexibly and appropriately, not plan their way out of austerity through ‘one-size-fits-all’ models.  While it heartening to read Taleb  it is hard to fathom why his views are seen as so radical when adaptive leadership and appropriate judgement are hardly news,  this is how good public leaders operate across many partnerships in the country.  Women have been advocating similar views on leadership for many years.

According to the Observer yesterday, those thinkers influencing politicians and policy-wonks at the moment include: David Brooks (The Social Animal); Thaler and Sunstein (Nudge);Kahneman (Thinking:Fast and Slow); Sandel (What money can’t buy); Layard (Happiness);Kate Pockard & Richard Wilkinson (The Spirit Level) as well as Nassan Taleb. The Spirit Level is having an international impact on policy makers who needed  evidence of how inequalities impact not only on individuals but also on society.

Most of the above authors are not saying anything new or wrong – but it is worrying we need telling in 2012 that we are social animals, that money isn’t everything and  doesn’t buy happiness or that inequalities can lead to resentment, violence and despair. Perhaps the reason why policy-makers need reminding of the relationship between well-being, the economy and social cohesion is because the subject of psychology is itself so poor at grappling with the relationship between people’s behaviour and public policy.  I continue to be amazed at how universities attract thousands  to study psychology when the curricula is completely divorced from anthropology, philosophy, political and policy – in reality departments train social engineers rather than conceptual thinkers concerned with  agency and social change.    I should add have a psychology degree.

I like Taleb because he doesn’t seem to be marketing a product but exploring how leaders can better approach complex problems in a turbulent world and concludes responsiveness is better than control.   The problem is that in policy-making circles there is a continuing desire to control and to pick one new idea – for instance Nudge, and promote it as the only solution, when a better reaction would be to question the assumptions underpinning public policy implementation.   For instance, public procurement has become the international lever for achieving public efficiencies, savings and innovation all at the same time while also transferring the risk of delayed results from the tax-payer to large companies, that can carry this risk.  This is delusional there are trade-offs involved in the transfer of risk, efficiency models and services innovation in particular.  See my MBS report on DWP Work Programme Procurement.

It is the continuing lack of respect and contact for practice  within Whitehall which  leads to poor judgement within policy making.  If the Cabinet Office were to reconnect department policy-makers with locality partnerships the latter would learn how difficult implementing policies is, in practice, it would also counter the ‘gadfly’ tendency of politicians and advisors alike. If you find out how specific policies impact on people and their lives  you would be in a better position to anticipate problems and think in terms of ‘trade off’ rather than perfect solutions;  and anticipate what local practitioners already know.

In the pursuit of  improving individual services we have lost the focus on how to support the development of more resilient communities within a world which is currently showing us the power of the weather.  This would  mean trusting people, not always knowing what will happen or where money will be spent, in return policy-makers would engender engagement and a healthier relationship with those who are  doing the work. This was how Sure Start was set up originally – it was the policy wonks who sought short-term results for specific groups. New projects new the space and freedom to develop with the flow of the community not be subject to weekly changes in direction arising from changing political whims.

Public leadership is challenging but it has changed dramatically over the past five years, especially in cities and local government – these changes have not come about because of a new book or theory, although these can help individuals reframe their thinking and judgement – local leadership is ahead of the game and policy-makers should get out more.

A first step would be to find out more about the Local Government Yorkshire and Humber Innovation Awards -in Huddersfieldon the Dec 6th

See recent article – Public Leadership Driven by Values not Bonuses.