Government management and the one-way road to failure

2009

Governments are the firmest believers in and practitioners of one-way management. Politicians will continue with failed policies long after their nonsense has been revealed. A horrendous example of this kind of government mismanagement is the lust to privatise. Somehow or other, the powers-that-be became convinced that private business is not only best, but the bigger the better.

This strange delusion has survived the appalling and self-destructive record of all too many admired firms. But the politicians were proud to mingle with the high and mighty economic tzars and all too ready to rundown the record of the public sector.

The catch is that the major public failures have often been precipitated by the politicians themselves. They are ignorant of management, which is excusable; but they act as if they are informed, which can't be excused.

Basic misapprehensions lead to fundamental error. Just as they thought the market led to efficiency because the customer called the tune, just as they imagined that regulation could be left to competitive market forces, so the political leaders thought that they would make better decisions by trusting the profit motive. They thus failed a simple test. Try it yourself:

  • Do I have a clear idea of the worthwhile object I aim to achieve, and how that policy aim will be met?
  • Do I have the right people on hand to manage the right achievement of the right goals?
  • Can these appointees, including all those who will execute the policy, contribute fully and freely?
  • Do the circumstances - the set-up - surrounding the policy fully enable its efficient execution?

Contrast the above with what actually happens in the public sector:

  • Objectives are fuzzy or inappropriate or based on false projections that result in inadequate planning.
  • The chain of command is too long, too knotted and staffed at all levels by too many people who have no special ability or knowledge in the decision areas.
  • Statements about results are wishful thinking rather than being proven by real outcomes.
  • The use of financial resources is profligate and rarely reported in actionable form.

Britain is a living proof of the ineffectiveness of the above approach. The ostensible top management consists of ministries headed by politicians who very possibly know little in depth about their fields of supposed power.

Some posts have changed hands six times in as many years. Any expertise that these two dozen ministers have acquired, either through internal changes or by a change of government, will promptly lose all value when they leave office.

Senior appointees are supported by underlings given charge, say, of higher education, where they have neither expertise nor valid experience. Smothered in paperwork and committee wranglings, these are bosses without power.

Asked by Business Week what he has learned about management and leadership in six hectic months of experience, US President Barack Obama said that 'my most important job is to get the right people in the right place with the right information'.

That is fine as far as it goes. But the three rights don't add value without two more: the overall creativity that leads management to the right action that achieves the right results.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".