How to make sense of things that don’t make sense

We discuss the Common Weal newsletter articles at a team meeting on a Tuesday. But everything we analyse gets us down, so the team suggested I try and do something a little more fun. And since quite a lot of people told me they enjoyed my ‘how to read nonsense’ article, here’s one on ‘how to make sense of things that don’t make sense’.

This is another of my personal discoveries over years of working with, for, and to influence politicians and the machinery of government. As a pretty universal rule, what ‘civilians’ (people who are never in the rooms where decisions are made) think is going on is very rarely what is actually going on. 

Basically, over the years I’ve realised that if you have all the information, everything makes sense. That might make you think it’s all logical. And that’s why the second thing I’ll say if I’m training new people who are interested in getting involved in policy and policy influence that the big mistake people make is to believe that the information itself is logical. It may not be. It’s just that if you have it, everything else makes sense.

Or let me make that even clearer. Many more times than you could possibly believe the missing piece of information is that ‘they’ve all gone mad’ or ‘no, he really is that stupid’ or ‘someone left the briefing note in the car, they improvised it and managed to say the opposite of what they were supposed to’.

So is this anti-politician? Nope, the opposite. Basically I’m defending politicians here. What they’re meant to do is really daft if you think about it. Senior politicians are meant to make dozens of significant decisions in any given week and you all expect those decisions to be really well thought-through and properly informed by data.

My basic question to you is this; how many decisions did you make this week which were well thought-through and properly informed by data? Two or three? None? I’ve written two opinion pieces this week (I like to hope they are properly thought through, mostly), dealt with a lot of correspondence, reviewed two policy papers, did a team meeting and a meeting with a network of European left-of-centre think tanks, helped a colleague install a font in a new software package, started revising my indy strategy…

This is Thursday lunchtime and I’d say I’ve made 20-odd significant work-related decisions and the majority were either ‘this is what I did the last time’ or ‘here is my instinctive answer to this question’. Sit down and make decisions from first principles using new information? One.

That’s why the first thing I tell new trainees is that you’ll get a lot further in policy and influence if you start off with some real empathy for who you’re trying to influence. How was their day? What did they have to do? What has made their week shit that was nothing to do with them? What crap got dropped on their desk because someone above them in the hierarchy didn’t want to catch the flak for it?

Politicians are human and they’re in a stressful job which isn’t really like other jobs – I mean, which of the rest of us have someone who is basically actively trying to get us fired every day of the week so that they can take our jobs? If you are in that position, how often does it play out on the front page of a national newspaper? (And what the hell is going on in your life? I want to know…)

I remember when I was working for a senior politician he had been three weeks without a day off and on the first Sunday he actually had at home, a shitty story about him broke and I had to phone him up and ruin his day. It’s a shit job and one of the reasons why I don’t want it…

So once you have these two tools in your bag (feel for the person you want to influence, don’t go in and barrack them; and remember that you’re probably missing information and that information may seem to make no sense but still explains everything), you can start to make sense of why things happen like they happen. You also get a better map of how to change them.

Once you start to understand this you will hit the most important learning point of all – you may think politics is chess but in reality it’s five-ball tennis. Generally neither politicians nor their staff are sitting around considering the long game and weighing up multiple paths through multiple possible futures (strategy). Generally there are five balls coming over the net at once and you’ve got half an hour to hit as many as possible back over the net, ugly if need be.

On all sides of this (working for, with, or to change the mind of a politician) I’ve been in rooms where decisions are being made. You’d be horrified at some of it. I can remember many meetings with quite a large agenda and the issues which weren’t going to cause immediate problems were signed off by one person saying ‘eh, let’s just say yes and see what happens’.

And these were important decisions. I have seen decisions bumped off like this which then come back to a future meeting where they’re top of the agenda because ‘what happened’ was a disaster – not least because it got literally eight words-worth of consideration.

One time I spent about three days trying to find out which half of the Labour/Lib Dem administration had put a particular policy in the Programme for Government. It turned out neither had; a junior staffer had realised it had been in previous manifestos of both parties and chucked it in because it was an early, consensual win. But it wasn’t in the current manifesto of either party so no-one knew why it was there.

Another time I remember clearly telling a politician ‘don’t do it – if you leave it you’ll get a wee negative story tomorrow, if you fight it you’ll be on four days of negative stories’. I tried really hard to persuade him to sit it out, but he said ‘we’ll worry about that later’. (We spent four days managing bad headlines…)

A small number of issues dominate government and often they may well get proper consideration, but there is just too much going on to do that for everything. That’s why the civil service was created as both facilitator and check-and-balance. They were specifically empowered to warn politicians they were making mistakes (think Yes Minister and you get the idea).

But civil service contracts were changed a while ago and the result was a subtle but important shift from ‘speaking truth to power’ towards ‘political courtier’. In the civil service you now get more out of giving politicians whatever they want than if you tell them they’re making a mistake. Basically the civil service now promotes those who don’t make trouble for politicians.

And that’s the problem. I know this sounds rotten having already said that politicians are under enormous pressure, but if you think about it all a little bit like someone having a panic attack, saying ‘oh, that person is having a terrible time, let’s keep out of it’ doesn’t help. If you are a civil servant and you’re clearly telling a politician that they’re wrong and should back down, you’re helping them.

The politicians I have by far the most time for can be identified by an easy characteristic – they ask you more than they tell you and they tell you some version of ‘if you think I’m wrong, tell me I’m wrong’. They’re the ones who are best able to avoid the avoidable catastrophes. And they’re massively out of fashion in politics.

Right now we tend to promote politicians based on whether they’re handsome/pretty, safe and on the basis of how well they improvise patter (we call this package electability). There has always been elements of that, but when it feels like things are constantly going wrong, this is an important reason for it.

It all makes sense if you remember that everyone involved is human and remarkably like you – at least a bit vain, basically a little bit lazy about things that they’re not really interested in, keen to keep hold of an income, don’t want to be embarrassed in front of everyone they know, don’t want to be the only person in the room wearing jeans…

And we now expect this. This is what we want from our politicians and we don’t realise we’re setting them up to fail. Once in government, if they’re talking at you, they’re not doing the important part of their actual job. But we want them to. We want them to be our friends and make us feel better. Secretly we want them to tell us that everything is OK even when it isn’t.

Everything makes sense if you have all the information. The information may not make sense in itself, but it makes sense of everything else. And it is very often not what you think it is. Once you accept all of this, it becomes much, much easier to make sense of what is going on.

Let me show you with a final story. I was training a team years ago and was trying to get this message over to them. I set up a pub-based meeting with an MSP who was a personal friend of mine. Before we went I told the team ‘the first thing I’m going to ask her is what has been taking up most of her time this week – guess now’.

The team said ‘reviewing legislation’ and ‘scrutinising decisions in committee’ and ‘working on an election strategy’. The correct answer (I quote exactly as it was said) was “fucking septic tanks”. Two constituents had got into a massive fight over a leaking septic tank and it had sucked hours and hours out of her week. To be clear, she was also reviewing legislation and scrutinising decisions in committee.

So just remember that and things will make much more sense. It’s never negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, it’s always fucking septic tanks. It is always fucking septic tanks…

2 thoughts on “How to make sense of things that don’t make sense”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    Thanks for this.
    It brought several smiles, some of them wry.
    You also made an important, if often, maligned, point about one of the traditional functions of the civil service and, indeed, the support services in any organisation. There needs to be some person or group who can say, without fear of recrimination, ‘Jist haud oan a minute ……’
    As someone who worked for many years in a senior management role, the number of things requiring decisions or seeming to require decisions, was fairly large and ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, with the latter more frequent than the former. One of the lessons about decision making is learning that often a decision does not need to be made.

    Delegation to, trust of and empowerment of others are essential things as well has having a sense of your own fallibility. The old Glasgow phrase, ‘Him? Ah kent his feyther’ is something we need to say to ourselves, even if we didnae know who wur feyther wis.

    Thanks, again.

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