A political triumph for deadline busters in Northern Ireland

March 27, 2007

_42185224_adamspaisleynew_203.jpgTwo men are photographed seated together. The world of Northern Ireland politics applauded the fact that DUP leader Ian Paisley had consented to sit in the same room with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

I am reminded of a handshake between Israeli and Palestinian leaders all those years ago at Camp David. The handshake was grudging. The world applauded the fact that it had taken place. Yesterday, the body language was no more comfortable. Nick Robinson, that most urbane of political correspondents, hailed the momentous nature of the event.

My diary notes for Saturday March 24th:

Ahern: Either – Or
Hain: Find some wriggle-room
Blair: Legacy? Avoids commenting
Brown: Offers another £1 billion to NI if deadline holds.
Paisley: Don’t bully us
Adams: DUP frustrating the will of the people
Leaders we Deserve: Deadline threat is a weak ultimatum. Everyone expected delays to the last moment. Where’s the Golden Bridge? Is a deadline a good idea?

The Golden Bridge

This is leadership folk-lore. A military leader I know likes to quote Lao Tse. The great leader leaves a golden bridge over which enemies can retreat. An unneccessary battle with desperate foes will be more costly than a more merciful strategy, not just as a matter of moral imperative, but of longer-term self-interest. Annihilation of an enemy force leaves too much of a legacy, and is a weak option, not a sign of strength. That’s what I meant by ‘Where’s the golden bridge?’

The Dynamics of Deadlines

In general, in leadership studies, the dynamics of deadlines has not received the attention it deserves. In some contrast, it is a topic of great interest to decision analysts, economists, and project managers.

I had returned to the recent cultural whipping-boy, Game Theory, earlier castigated in The Trap.

Researchers into economic rationality term the key issue that of the Principal/Agent problem. This quickly gets complex enough even when working with the start-up case of a single ‘boss’ or Principal, and a single employee or agent. In his Theory of Optimal Deadlines, Flavio Toxvaerd demonstrates the complexities even when dealing with the simple case (rather than the political situation with several Principals and Agents).

To summarize, Principal Agent theory begins (as the Trap indicates) with the assumption that Agent and Principal will always act to protect their own self-interests. The theory builds in information asymmetry and the universal temptation of the Agent to avoid unpleasant actions even if this leads to ‘moral hazard’.

While agents may appear to be irrational, this may be explained in various ways. Some of the irrationalities may be minimised by the contractual introduction of incentives for aligning the wishes of Boss and agent. However, as Toxvaerd reminds us, estimates of deadlines are notoriously bad in practice. His theorizing suggests that contracts too often fail to offer sufficient incentives for the agent.

In other words?

If you impose deadlines for some action to be completed, make sure the payoffs are as far as possible aligned with the interests of the agent. Extrapolating to the political case, try to find an alignment of the interests of the major players. What non-economists call win-win outcomes. These ideas suggest that change is more likely if deadlines are consensual rather than imposed.

The story will also be remembered for the common enemy identified by Paisley and Adams. It turned out to be a threatened Water Tax, brandished by Peter Hain as a bit of legislation from the European Parliament. (Trickle-down economics indeed). And maybe, just maybe, the deadline was quite a good idea, in order to provide something to be challenged and defeated by the Northern Ireland leadership.

As of today, political progress seems to have been taking place, and been seen to have been taking place in Northern Ireland. Less than a month ago he talk was of ‘a battle a day’. Now, ‘the audacity of hope’ is a little more on the agenda.