Friday 26 January 2018

Reader mailbag: bureaucratic constraints edition

From the bowels of another Ministry comes this response to my wondering how a truth-seeking Minister might extract non-pandering advice from the Ministry:

  • Ministers typically work 14 hour plus a day, 6 to 7 days a week. My impression is that most are genuine in their beliefs but that is not the same as looking for the truth...
  • A typical meeting with a civil servant will be based on a paper or detailed presentation of the evidence, plus 5 to 10 minutes of discussion on a topic.
  • Minister spend most of their time talking to people with a special interest who will not hesitate to lie to them (it is difficult for those outside the system to conceive just how endemic various degrees of lying are to every conversation a politician has), so even the minister you describe will have to spend a lot of their time dealing with that context.
  • Further, every interaction is basically a bargaining situation. In bargaining the truth is usually not the most important constraint.
When you put this all together, what is miraculous is that there are any ministers in the scenario you describe! 
Given that, my correspondent suggests that, most of the time, putting effort into solid evidence is either pointless or potentially counterproductive as the Ministry may just be seen as another special interest group.

I think it's important regardless. Sure, a Minister might not be listening. But others might appreciate seeing an honest, non-pandering RIS.

And hoisted from the comments on that prior post, because Disqus isn't synching with the mobile version of the site:
"How can you credibly signal to your incredibly risk averse Ministry that you actually want frank advice?" Easy: this is a repeated game so you can go about it one play at a time. From day 1 I demand that my officials provide two competing sets of advice on every single matter. When they meet with me I listen respectfully to both presentations and ask questions that demonstrate that I'm engaging with the issues raised in both. After enough iterations have occurred to build some trust, I start asking people at the meeting directly what they think. To maintain the social capital I've earned, I'll have to be seen occasionally accepting, or at least seriously considering, an option that was known not to be my original preference. It's time consuming and takes effect, yes, but so does any job done properly. 

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