21 October 2009

Objectives and outcomes

John Kay writes that, after the fall of France in 1940:
neither Churchill nor any other British leader could have had any realistic conception of how that goal [victory] would be achieved. Even if the Germans failed to invade Britain, a British invasion of Europe without overwhelming assistance and support was inconceivable. Churchill understood that American participation in the war was a precondition but had no means, and no plan, for bringing this about. The events that changed the direction of the war – the failed German attack on Russia and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor – were neither predictable nor predicted. ... Maintain a clear sense of long-term objectives but acknowledge the limits on your day-to-day actions. The gravest errors in the financial and business world are made, not by those who control or know too little, but by those who control or know less than they think. True survivors do not clutch at straws, 'Financial Times', 21 October
It's amazing what can be done if you have a clear, long-term goal in mind. Unforeseeable events are immediately interpreted in relation to that goal. One's entire attitude of mind is orientated toward achieving the goal. When our leaders' goals coincide with public benefit, then the possibilities are immense. But what happens when they don't?

Very much what we have now. Serious environmental challenges that are not being addressed. The piling up of conventional weapons and the proliferation of nuclear warheads. The subordination of global outcomes to the nutters and ideologues, whether they be 'religious' or political extremists. The drift toward financial collapse, and economic ruin. The alienation of the moderates. The continuing fraying of the social fabric.... Our politicians are letting us down: their goals, if they have them, are political survival, and the possibility of personal (or familial) enrichment. Our bureaucrats don't want to rock the boat. It seems as if our policymaking system, like our legal, or (in the US) healthcare systems, are divorced and diverging from public needs.

Unless there's an obvious, and preferably (tele)visual crisis on our hands, we don't think in terms of clear, long-term goals. A Social Policy Bond regime could change that. We could aim to address urgent, meaningful global problems such as war, climate change, or disasters of any sort. We could focus on regional conflict, or national problems such as unemployment. In all cases, a bond regime would start off with clear, transparent, meaningful long-term goals. Investors in the bonds, and the wider public, would then have a strong interest in seeing targeted objectives become outcomes.


Anonymous said...

Problem is that people at policy level have inherent biases. Take a look at

one proposed solution to pump sulphur dioxcide into air. The science say it could work and makes the point that seemingly insurmountable problems often have cheap and simple solutions

Ronnie Horesh said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree that sometimes solutions can be cheap and simple, but I do not agree that pumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere is one such solution. This post convinced me of that. Just one reason: pumping SO2 into the air would not stop the acidification of the oceans. Your broader point is well taken though. We do need incentives for scientists to look for the most efficient solutions to our social and environmental problems, and our current policymaking system does not do that. It is largely driven by the interests of large organizations, be they public or private sector. These interests are not always the same as those of most ordinary people - and often conflict with them.