Skunk control and the Clinton puff

July 27, 2007

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Governments want to solve the problems of drug abuse. But programs of drug education are sadly ineffective. This suggests that politicians need to change if they are to escape the suspicion that they are untrustworthy spinners of tales in the interests of personal agendas

The overall thrust of this post is how the public is influenced by thought leaders, particularly in the context of issues of public health such as the dangers of vaccination and of drug-taking. The post opens up several issues which will have to be developed in subsequent posts.

A specific incident triggered this note.

My story begins with an exchange of views between a BBC broadcaster and someone calling in to a morning chat show. The phone-in was on BBC Radio Five live. The format is very much customized by long-established practice, and tends to invite text, emails or calls from listeners. Issues are picked up mostly from the popular issues of the day, with a steer from the early morning news media. The approach has never been accused as a dodgy means of cash from callers. The interviewer generally plies his trade in a bright and intelligent fashion.

The selected issue on the morning of Wednesday 25th July 2007 was that of drugs, drug dependency, and the impact of government initiatives. The interviewer permitted himself to be hooked into a pub-level exchange of views about the validity of the scientific evidence over the dangers of cannabis.

‘There’s no evidence’ asserted the caller.
‘There’s lots of scientific studies’, replied the BBC moderator.
‘Not proper, thorough ones’.
‘Yes, I’ve got the information front of me … [reads from his video feed]. …The evidence is endorsed by the British Medical Association…’.
‘That’s not proof, that’s propaganda’.

Interviewer now intent on winning this one, calls up yet more evidence on to his screen.

‘Alright. There’s another example from New Zealand. A longitudinal study with a thousand subjects shows that cannabis use led to more mental illnesses and hospitalization’.
‘A thousand people! That’s nothing. What sort of sample is that? I’d be laughed down by those medical experts if I said Cannabis was safe on evidence from just a thousand people’.

At which point, the interviewer ended the discussion, politely thanking the caller for sharing this point of view.

Monty Python and what the Romans ever did for us

The debate reminded me of a famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, about what the Romans had ever done for the ancient Britains. In the film, each counter-example of what the Romans did (aqueducts, roads, central heating, and so on) was grudgingly granted as one little example insufficient to win the argument.

Today, the claims of the New Zealand study were similarly brushed aside.

Does this matter a Clinton’s non-inhaled puff?

I rather think it does. There is a need to improve public awareness of medical findings. A current debate is emerging around the dangers of cannabis use. A recent example with adverse consequences to public health was tragically demonstrated during the MMR vaccine case, where public opinion was violently polarized. For a while, there were two views, each supported by influence figures or thought leaders. Eventually, the evidence overwhelmingly lined up behind the view endorsed by the British Medical Council. The vaccine was safe. Its use did not have the side effects that were concerning parents, and leading them to hold back on vaccinating their children.

But a proportion of parents remained in denial about the trustworthiness of the conclusions reached by the medical authorities. The popular view had been shaped by thought leaders who had aired plausible arguments which fed through into public assertions on web sites and in workplaces. When the topic was aired on chat shows, politicians seemed unable to counter views rejecting the credibility of the authority of the conclusions of the British Medical Council.

My depressing conclusion is that the political figures had an inadequate grasp of how medical research works. Also, I’m not sure the BBC mediators could elevate the level of discussion, even if they abandon their commitment to promoting ‘unbiased’ debate.

In other words, a few thought leaders with dubious arguments retain credibility, because of a lack of general education of others who might have been figures of influence.

Ttis may be a bit much to ask of primarily commercial broadcasters. But the BBC holds to its mission to entertain, but also to educate and inform.

What might help in such discussions?

A greater awareness of medical methodology is needed among politicians. Researchers worry a great deal about the appropriate design of an investigation. They know otherwise they will not be able to draw conclusions with any confidence. They also know that every research proposal will be scrutinized carefully. If the work goes ahead, the results will be even more carefully examined by other researchers (peer-review).

Sample size does matter. But the general public could be quickly introduced to a few principles or guidelines. How studies often only show association of a few factors, not causal links. Why some kinds of study require a few hundred individuals while others need far fewer.

A thousand people included in the New Zealand trial makes it quite a major one. Its longitudinal nature made it possible to consider causation, not just connection or association.

My point is that these ideas are not difficult to introduce into more widespread currency. That we all become less vulnerable to uninformed opinions taking hold. We accept the thought leaders after a more informed reflection of their arguments.

What’s this got to do with the Clinton line on drugs?

Bill Clinton serves as an excellent example of how some thought leaders operate. Audiences believed him, and went on believing him, even as evidence began to pile up to the contrary. In England, Tony Blair was having pretty much the same effect on his audiences. Their charisma worked its influence through a rare combination of charm and eloquence. Their most powerful weapons for attaining political leadership were their thoughts, their speech acts.

Clinton could find ways of explaining how he didn’t really smoke cannabis or how he didn’t have really have sex with that woman. And so on. Tony Blair convinced voters that old labour had been replaced by new labour which could be trusted by all sectors of the community. David Cameron is engaged in a similar exercise in thought leadership at present as h struggles to change the conservative party.

There is still much work to be done on the fascinating topic of thought leadership. I suppose I’m arguing for the benefits of efforts that educate people to become more are capable of assessing ideas on grounds that go beyond the skills of gurus, and charismatic thought leaders.

A note on thought leaders

I have indicated some doubts about the current state of knowledge of thought leadership. This has not prevented the enthusiastic espousal of the term by various management consulting organizations. But even Wikipedia is a bit sniffy, describing thought leadership as:

a buzzword or article of jargon used to describe a futurist or person who is recognized among peer mentors for innovative ideas and who demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights

The authors of Dilemmas of Leadership are also suspicious, although they suggest that the term may be theorized by connecting it to social identity theory, which would help understand the features attributed to thought leaders.

Where is this taking us?

Arguably there are several stories jostling to emerge here. One suggestion is how public education into issues such as medication and drug abuse will require a different kind of thought leadership. Another is the dependency which is associated with exposure to that other kind of dangerous drug, the words peddled to us by charismatic thought leaders.


Nurses pay won’t go away. Gordon Brown must have his say

May 28, 2007

_42810465_noreena203.jpgA recommended pay award for nurses in England was partly delayed by the Government. The Royal College of Nursing is to ballot its members for possible industrial action. Politicans back the call. A tricky and possibly important early challenge for Gordon Brown’s leadership. Is there anything he might learn from Nicholas Sarcozy’s first weeks in office?

How long is a leader’s honeymoon period? As long as a piece of string. Gordon Brown has over a month to go even before the nuptuals are celebrated. Already there are malcontents likely to be at the wedding ceremony.

Gordon Brown as Prime Minister will be not be given as much time to find his feet as was David Cameron on his appointment of leader of the Conservative party and wannabe Premier. Brown’s honeymoon will be briefer, if only because he has been in the public eye as a political heavyweight for a more that a decade (and a decade as we all know is a very long time in politics).

In this respect he has something common with Nicholas Sarcozy, the newly elected French president. Sarco had a tricky little test within days of coming to office. As he was preparing to assume the trappings of power he had a little time to consider the rumbling discontent of workers at Airbus.

Now Airbus in the French psyche is not quite the cultural icon as is The National Health Service in the British. Not quite. But combine the threat the French jobs with the traditional willigness for action direct and you are looking at a challenge that had to be dealt with at risk of a bad first impression as a leader. So we might conclude that Gordon has this also in common with the French leader.

The joys of opposition

The circumstances provide one of the joys of opposition. The opportunity to espouse a popular cause. Already there is further support from activists who have enlisted Professional Footballers to the cause.

Gordon Brown in opposition would have been in there with his political opponents (which, as they say, can be found in, as well as outside, his own Party).

According to The BBC

Nearly 200 MPs, including the leaders of both main opposition parties, have backed calls for nurses to get a full 2.5% pay increase this year. Nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been offered a 1.5% rise followed by another 1% in November .. [The MPs also include] several leading Labour figures – the deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas, former health secretary Frank Dobson and former ministers Kate Hoey and Stephen Byers

What might Gordon do?

There is a juicy dilemma of leadership here. Gordon as social reformer would like to find a way of supporting the Nurses. As politican he would also like to win some points for being nice to such a cherished group of workers. As Chancellor, he has already faced the tough financial and political consequences of granting a modest-looking pay award in full and on time. As would-be leader his famous concern for prudence is likely to be gnawing away as he nail-bites his way to a decision.

A tip from across the channel

The parallels with the Airbus case are strong enough to be worthy of consideration.
In an earlier post I suggested that:

There are times in politics, when as in chess, the leader has to find a waiting move. In chess, the idea is to move without disturbing the delicate balance in a complex and dynamic situation. You do best by effectively not disturbing the status quo. … So it was in Toulouse. Facing angry Unions, represtatives of the Company’s French leadership, and the wider international press, he signals two somewhat contradictory positions. Yes, he will ‘stand by’ and ‘do his duty’ to the interests of the French employees. But in the longer term, he does not rule out selling the Government’s stake in the company. I will return, he promises. In July. When he will be accompanied by his new friend Angela [Merkel]. If not masterful inactivity, we have seen an example of how to create a little wriggle room in a tricky situation.

Gordon, who would have made a good chess-player if he had not chosen other pursuits, has to find a waiting move. He will try not to upset the nurses. That would never do. He will try to appear not to have been forced to act by political opponents. That will never do, either.

And so we will not have long to wait to find out what happens next. The next game in the leadership match is starting, and Gordon Brown’s clock is ticking away.

Update

Later, May 28th 2007. Gordon brown’s website has a vote on issues of the week. Voters were opting for the NHS by a narrow margin (over international affairs).


But leadership IS a team role …

April 26, 2007

Employers are increasingly valuing team players over leaders, says a futurologist. But where does that leave team leadership? We look at the claim from a research perspective

In a BBC interview, BT Futorologist Ian Pearson says that employers are recognizing the virtues of interpersonal skills (sometimes called soft skills, and as a differentiator between masculine and feminine behavioral styles).
The impression left by the article, is that team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers. Also, that women are better team-players, and therefore also more valued by employers than are men. The arguments leading to such conclusions need a bit more examination.

The situation seems to have been reduced to some either-or propositions, such as ‘we either have to chose good leaders or good team players’. It also implies that there is a universalistic recipe out there. If a century of research into leadership has revealed anything, it is the absence of a theory of leadership that provides universal propositions. In other words, we might wish to study the hypothesis

H: team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers

[Or the form preferred in many research methods courses
H: team players are not becoming more valued than leaders by employers]

Either hypothesis when put to empirical testing will quickly be shown to be highly context dependent. At which stage, the researchers begin to mutter about ceterus paribus , or contingent variables, or in everyday terms ‘other things being equal; or ‘it all depends’ . Unfortunately, empirical research catches popular headlines more easily if it can be reduced to a simple statement. We have to work at the proposal to sort out the factors behind he assumptions. So let’s do a little more work on it.

Are team workers becoming more favoured over leaders by employers?

Yup, you guessed it – it all depends. It depends on what the statement means by leaders, team workers, and even (less ambiguously) by employers. It depends on the sorts of employment, and the sorts of team task. As stated, the issue can be tested. Are employers placing team working skills above leadership skills in making their selection and recruitment decisions? Has that become standard practice in BT, to take the specific case with which Professor Pearson is particularly familiar? What is the evidence that the same applies to other private sector organizations in our global marketplace?

For what it’s worth

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think is going on, and what sense I can make of it.
First, long-held views of leaders and followers have come under some scrutiny. The old ideas was that leader took the decisions, the followers carried them out. ‘Good’ followers ‘obeyed orders’, but you can see where I’m going there. More recently, this view lead to tricky dilemmas of leadership which have not gone away.

Among the most promising of attempts to deal with the dilemma of ‘followership’ was the search for methods of power-sharing, so that followers all had status differentials removed, and all became members of the same team. (I know a very large organization that actually banned the word ‘manager’ in the height of enthusiasm for a team-based approach). With empowerment came motivation, and the end of the economist’s bane, the economic free-rider. From that perspective it was an easy step to develop the idea of distributed leadership.

But what happens to the ‘old style leader’. This is where I think I can make common cause with the Pearson thesis. The weaknesses of the old style leader have been rumbled. The special one has to become a special team player. More than ever, in team work, the leader is nor more, and no less than a team player. And as such, the team player needs those desirable soft skills.


Cameron faces Clones syndrome

March 11, 2007

Polls remain promising for opposition leader David Cameron. Despite a political wobble this week, he seems to be succeeding in weakening the Conservative reputation as the nasty party. His shifts towards ground previously occupied by New Labour appear to have been shrewdly chosen. But they may yet have the unavoidable consequence of reminding the electorate of Tony Blair and his charismatic early days in power. Cameron may yet become a victim of Clones syndrome.

This week David Cameron acted swiftly to dismiss Shadow homeland security spokesman Patrick Mercer after remarks about ethnic minority soldiers. Patrick Mercer’s career as a serving officer was put under scrutiny. It was revealed as exemplary. Black soldiers who served under him came forward to reject any accusations of the officer having displayed racist behaviors.

David Cameron came as much under the spotlight as did Patrick Mercer. Political allies insisted that Cameron had no option but (‘regretfully’) to dismiss Mr Mercer. According to the BBC, Mercer had been reported as saying that

he had met “a lot” of “idle and useless” ethnic minority soldiers who used racism as a “cover”. The former officer also told the Times that being called a “black bastard” was a normal part of Army life .. Mr Cameron had made his position clear: “The comments made by Patrick Mercer are completely unacceptable and I regret that they were made … We should not tolerate racism in the Army or in any walk of life …I was completely shocked when I read the remarks of Patrick Mercer.”

The dismissal polarized opinion within the Conservative party. Some echoed the popularist sentiment that it was another example of political correctness gone mad. Others accepted that their leader had no choice. However honorable his record, the remarks, if left uncensored, could too easily suggest to the electorate that the Conservatives remained the nasty party.

This is subtle stuff indeed

This is subtle stuff indeed. I’m not sure that Cameron was forced to act in the way he did. If so, he is already a victim of ‘events, dear boy, events’. More significant is the sense made of the situation among political commentators. By and large they agree that he has to deal with leadership dilemmas by careful attention to their second-level consequences. I have no problem with this line of reasoning.

Another point made this week also seems pertinent to the dilemmas of David Cameron in the specific context of Tony Blair’s departure from power. I have called it Clones syndrome.

Clones syndrome

Among those second-level consequences are some which have been expressed from time to time. That David Cameron has studied, learned from, and rather admired Tony Blair’s transformation of old labour. Just as Blair studied, learned from, and rather admired Margaret Thatcher.

Whenever David Cameron acts in ways similar to those espoused by Tony Blair, he will be open to the accusation of copying him. Opponents will be quick to label him no more than a Blair clone. It will not matter that the actions are similar because there are a limited number of non-stupid actions to take.

Actions that can be interpreted as good for the media will be presumed to be taken for that reason alone. My Cameron appears to be strongly commited to moving the party to a greener position. Demonstrating it through hugging a Husky will never be a complete PR success.

I’m not sure of all the implications of this. It will be interesting to see how they emerge in the months to come.


Football leadership: Strong is weak and weak is strong?

March 3, 2007

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When Steve McClaren became England’s football coach he booted David Beckham out of the team and out of the entire squad. Showing strong leadership. Or was he just showing the need to try to show strong leadership? Now he faces losing his own job

Update

This story has been updated [August 20th 2007, October 19th 2007] to a time when after many twists and turns, David Beckham had been readmitted to the England Squad by Steve McClaren, then lost his place through injury.

The updates gives me a chance to clarify the content of the original post. I’m keeping the original which even I think was pretentious and unclear, because it does have a leadership point to it. I wish I’d just kept it simple, mentioned that the ‘previous General’ was Sven Goran Eriksson, his favorite captain was that self-same David Beckham, and cut out all those post-modern flourishes.

The Original Text

I will leave the full story to those who have studied it in far more detail, for nearly a year, across front and back pages of newspapers, in multiple TV and radio shows around the World. I’m really interested in the more general points of a leader’s honeymoon period, and what constitutes ‘good’ leadership.

Trying to leave the sainted David out of the story is bit like trying to write a history of the Second World War without mentioning Winston Churchill, or that Austrian chappie. Becks is a near-unique marketing phenomenon, as well as a former England football captain. I’m going to try to airbrush him out, if only because it keeps me on a playing field where I’ve at least got a couple of coaching badges.

The Beckhamless Tale

[Look, we’ll just cut out the clever post-modern stuff about Beckham still dominating the text, despite all efforts to leave him out. OK?] This is a story about a leader who takes over after the fall of another leader judged to have failed. I will speak only of Generals, and Captains and so on.

As I was saying, there was this leader, a foreign General, who had taken over from a failed leader. At first, the Foreign General was successful in comparison to the previous leader. But his popularity might have been the Honeymoon effect. Even quite small triumphs helped secure his popularity at first. This period lasted a few years, although there were many who always opposed him because he was not a member of the tribe of which he had become the General in command on the field of football battle.

This foreign General had a favorite warrior, whose name need not concern us in this story. This favorite was his appointed military Captain. The Captain was indeed a famed warrior, (another btale of triumph after early setbacks). Captain and General helped achieve some victories, often snatching victory as defeat seemed inevitable.

As time went by, the closeness of the victories, and a few defeats, dispelled all dreams of the people that the General was a super-hero. Both General and Captain fell from favor. The honeymoon period was over. The General indicated that he would leave his post. He was aware that the powerful barons would call for his head after his next defeat.

There followed another defeat even as the General was preparing to relinquish his duties. His gallant and weary Captain also proffered his resignation, but pledged himself to serve under a new general, and under whomever would replace him.

The General’s lieutenant takes over

Those barons had appointed The General, and had also provided him with a member of their own tribe as deputy, someone who had become a faithful lieutenant. Many people thought he was too close to the General, so faithful and discreet was he.
The barons who wanted the Foreign General to go had been wondering how to replace him. They even approached another Foreign General, but the plan did not work. ‘Maybe if we selected the faithful lieutenant’ they perhaps argued to themselves ‘that will show we still have confidence in our past actions. And so it was, that the faithful lieutenant became the new chief.

The Lieutenant’s leadership dilemma

The new chief is closely associated with the last failed campaign of the departing General. To do nothing would suggest he has no new ideas. To attempt to introduce many changes would be suggest that he had been too weak to oppose things he disagreed over in the past. Yet he had to decide what to do to replace the Captain who had been so faithful to himself and the previous General.

The big symbolic gesture?

The new leader accepted the resignation of the gallant captain, but announced that he was no longer to be considered on active service. Some said that the decision pleased the Barons who had been critical of the favoritism showed the gallant captain by the former General. Others said that the captain had lost the support of his own foot soldiers, and was weakened by the adulation he received from the common people, and had become vain and lazy.

By acting to remove him, the new general was showing decisiveness, and this also helped deflect continued criticism that he was too wedded to the plans and favorites of the former General.

What would you have done?

Remember we are trying to work towards principles that might apply more widely than a single case example. I am still trying to set aside that sense of ‘I know what happened next to the former Captain, and the results of early campaigns of the newly appointed General’. What would you have done when first put in charge? What might be the considerations favoring one action over others? You have to do something, even if it is a ‘wait and see’ policy. How might we assess a leader’s competence at the time, and subsequently?

This is a thought-experiment. We can simulate various possibilities and outcomes in imagination. This in turn helps us develop micro-theories around our assumptions and beliefs. It’s how war games are played. We can try to draw on parallels from the stories we know of other leaders, in other sets of circumstances.

There are arguments in favor of a new leader making painful changes as early as possible on appointment. The case was made many years ago by Machiavelli.

I have indicated some other considerations that might have been part of the new General’s calculations. Perhaps you feel that Machiavelli’s principle (hit hard and early, then rein back) can be used to justify the actions of the new general. Maybe you have another take on the story of the newly appointed General?


Gun crisis: Disentangling the political rhetoric

February 18, 2007

Three teenagers were shot to death this week in London. Politicians have pronounced on the violence and apparent pointlessness of their fate, an emerging gun-culture, alienation, and single parenting, laced with more than a hint of racialism against young black culture. To what extent can we disentangle the calculated and contrived from the compassionate?

Under these circumstances, Politicians find it all to easy to express a view, although fully aware of the minefield they are treading. Proposals will be labelled as primarily gesture politics. Grand visions will have to be backed-up with evidence of thought-through first-steps.

The case illustrates the dilemmas of political leadership. Politicians in power are in the position of being able to announce those specific new and promising first steps. Although this is the case for Tony Blair, anything radically new in what he suggests will be challenged by many in the media with the automatic reaction – why did it take his Government so long to get there?

David Cameron, in contrast, does not have to deal with that particular form of cyncial challenge to new ideas. He may even be able to offer novelty which as long as it has plausibility, will not be tested in the near future. He can justify why the ideas have not been previously policy for his party. He is still (just about) in a leadership honeymoon period (weighing up his overall treatment from the media). However, he still faces dilemmas. There is still the objection that he is operating from the luxury of not having to put his ideas to the test. And he has been careful not to commit his party too closely to specific policy statements, avoiding political hostages to fortune.

What did the leaders do, how did they do?

The early front-runner was David Cameron. His analysis was unusual for a traditional Conservative politician. However, Mr Cameron has been diligent in demonstrating that he is no traditional Tory. His reaction focussed on cultural deprivation as a deep-rooted and significant factor that needed to be addressed. The position would have been ‘nothing new there, then’ if offered by a traditional labour (or contemporary Liberal democratic politician).

John Reid as Home Secretary was at first more occupied with advancing the progress towards the provision of two new prisons. He turned his attention to the teenage deaths after David Cameron. His remedy, suitably tough was to reveal Government plans offering a review of gun laws and toughening them where necessary.

Tony Blair was curiously slower in response, but toward the weekend seemed to have reclaimed Dr Reid’s story for himself, in a TV interview, and a story that had been trailed to appear in The Sunday Times newspaper.

In ‘response’ to the yet-to-be-published statement, Sir Menzies Campbell broadly warned that there could be no quick-fix (sounding disdainful of rhetorical gestures on such a matter), but offering no ideas of long term alternative.

The political cross-dressing continues

Tony Blair has been consistent in his repositioning of New Labour on tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It is now commonplace to attribute the phrasing as a gift to Tony from Gordon when they were somewhat closer buddies. His approach is thus incremental (tougher laws for younger people). Dr Reid, in that respect is also close to this aspect of New Labour orthodoxy temperamentally. David Cameron is also consistent in repositioning New Torydom with considerable invasions of regions of social policies held firmly by Old Labour. Overall, both Blair and Cameron were consistent in their enthusiasm for political cross-dressing, shocking some of their previous supporters in the interests of change. Which leaves Sir Menzies Campbell with the unenviable task of pointing only to the truism that quickfixes do not work.

Winners and losers?

I’m not sure I can find any winners from the political offerings discussed. The proposals remain less than convincing that swift and effective changes are about to begin in the interests of vulnerable groups of young people in the inner cities of London, Mmanchester and elsewhere. The leaders we elected are delivering the leadership the rest of us deserve. Perhaps, as a message from Tim suggested in response to an earlier Blog, Gordon Brown might have some personal conslation in keeping out of the battle.


John Reid acts. But if he’s in a hole, shouldn’t he stop digging?

February 16, 2007

Britain’s prisons are crammed full. John Reid announces plans for two new prisons to be built in the future. His actions illustrate a leadership dilemma. When the battle is reaching a critical stage, what should a leader do? Is it better to act, showing that you are not paralyzed into inaction? Or is action – any action – better than appearing impotent?

If you are in a hole, digging may be a good thing to do, providing you are tunneling in the right direction to get out. Or, to use another explanation, provided you are not heading for some wicked problem-solving.

To act or not to act, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the field to suffer the stings and arrows of ….sorry got a bit carried away there. That soliloquy was prompted by Dr Reid’s announcement that two prisons are to be built to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of overcrowding.

It follows the recent accounts suggesting that John Reid was struggling to demonstrate that he had any grip on an intractable problem. In earlier blogs, I suggested that the Home Secretary appeared ineffective because the situation was so difficult that any announcement lacked plausibility. Today’s announcement does little to encourage me to change my view on this. Rather, it indicates the nature of the dilemma for leaders in a tight corner, or deep in the brown muddy stuff. Planning permission for one of the prisons has still not been secured. The other is scheduled for completion later this year.

Background to the Dilemma

The story has been building up with news of the current overcrowding, and following Dr Reid’s recent efforts, encouraging Judges to avoid committing criminals to prison wherever alternatives were possible. According to the BBC,

the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said that the jail system was in “serious crisis” . Prisons had become “like a funnel where liquid is being poured into the top with no tap to release it at the bottom”.

.. Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, said the government had not grasped the basic issue that sentencing policy rather than lack of prisons was to blame for overcrowding .. “It’s not actually going to deal with the fundamental issue… that sentencing has become much tougher. It’s a bit like adding extra lanes to the M25 – they’ll get filled up very quickly.”

The overflow pipe (or release tap) is missing or blocked. Widening the motorways has increased the flow of traffic on them. Such metaphors help us grapple with abstractions, but they have their limitations. I will try to present the issue less colourfully at least for a while. The two cited commentators agree that the processes of supply and demand are out of balance. The mechanisms in the short term involve reducing the flow in, or increasing the flow out (cars, water into the top of the funnel, criminals leaving the system).

Dr Reid’s dilemmas

At some stage we will have to build into our considerations the possibility that Dr Reid is constrained to act in ways that promote his personal ambitions. This is nothing unique within leadership decision-making, as few leaders act ignoring personal implications of the decision. The leadership dilemma, in broader terms, is how should a leader deal with a crisis. To date, The Home Secretary has been constructing his narrative as someone acting decisively although the situation will require many and lengthy struggles. Although he has avoided mimicry of Churchillian rhetoric, he has been quick to remind us that we are not at the end of our problems, nor even at the end of the beginning.

One of the dilemmas is how to deflect criticism of leadership inaction, when there are no actions that appear to be effective in the short-term. Mr Reid opts for offering the promise of an easy-to-understand solution. The solution is derived from a presumption that the problem is overcrowding of prisons and the solution is to build more prisons.

The Road to Cairo and Wicked Problem-Solving

Some while ago I took part in a discussion of these kinds of dilemmas in a group of international business and political leaders. A view emerged that pressures to find simple solutions lead to wicked problem-solving. An Egyptian delegate told the story of a problem of a dangerous stretch of road to Cairo from the International airport. He explained that the favoured solution for some time was to arrange for first-aid services on stand-by at the most dangerous stretch of road. We voted it the best example of wicked problem-solving.

According to Anne Owers and other commentators, Mr Reid may be heading for wicked problem-solving. This tends to arise from a denial of the assumptions around the proposed strategy.

Leadership principles

What leadership lessons can we learn from all this? Under crisis, the temptation to act often goes hand in hand with an unwillingness to challenge assumptions. Returning to a metaphor, the escape from a problem involves digging a hole – but as Edward de Bono would ask ‘Are we digging in the right place?’ Should we be looking for ‘another place to dig’?


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