Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Art of Judgement - The Regulation of institutions

The purpose of this chapter is to outline Vickers model of policy setting and decision making in an institution. He uses a local authority as an illustration of his point.

His starting position is that within an institution, there are departments, each with functional relations to do something. Some of those departments are concerned only with the health of the institution. Vickers illustrates this by referring to the metabolic system of a cow - concerned with keeping the animal alive by processing whatever ends up in its stomach. He attaches the tag of metabolic relations to the purpose of these departments.

Vickers makes another division - that is, those parts of an institution which are concerned with internal relations and those that manage external relations.

Finally, Vickers talks of a spectrum of purpose within an institution that spans the extremes of imposed relations (where an external body is setting the objectives) and self set relations where the institution has autonomy in policy setting and decision making. He makes the point that most policies and decisions will be somewhere along the spectrum. Few will be at the extremes.

The chapter details the interrelatedness of the internal parts of an institution, and makes the point that "any major change will reverberate through the whole system".

Failing Institutions
Where an institution is failing to meet standards, the first thing that happens is that the "levels of acceptability" are lowered. "The system in jeopardy sheds first the relations least essential to survival". Vickers uses an analogy to a human body in extremely cold conditions. The body will de-prioritise extremities, thus risking frost bite, in order to protect the core body temperature, which is more critical for survival.

Expanding Strategy
Vickers highlights that in times of great success, the dynamic of the institution is very different to that in bad times. "An executive who is outstanding at salving undertakings in danger of dissolution, a statesman supreme at leading a country under dire threat, is not necessarily so successful at exploiting success".

So, this tells us what doesn't work, but is disappointing in advice to what skills might be needed! I'm guessing this forms the basis of the rest of the book! My initial response to this quite profound observation is that maybe this is because in a failing institution, there are few, if any choices; it is the least worst solution that is the best path to follow. However, in an expanding institution, there are a multitude of choices, and each choice effectively extinguishes other paths that could have been followed.

Crossing over to a different discipline for a moment, I am studying a Coursera course in modern world history. Quoting Professor Zelikow, "the path of what happened in the past is so brightly lit, that trail is so clear to you that everything else that could have happened is cast even more deeply into shadow". This "hindsight blindness" effect could be why analysis of policy in a failing institution looks different to that of an expanding institution - although in reality, there are just fewer choices in the first example?

The rest of the chapter focuses on how policy setting and decision making is not simply goal seeking, and he contrasts the idea of the "purpose-ridden man" with "norm-holding" - that if life was just about goal seeking, then people would be permanently dissatisfied, except for the brief moment where the goal is achieved.

The chapter ends with a comment on how most policy setting is about "threat avoiding", rather than norm holding, or goal seeking. Vickers says that in policy setting, we often identify that critical threshold beyond which the system "suffers radical, self exciting and often irreversible change".

When I reflect on the public face of climate change science, this sentence captures the essence of my experience.

The Art of Judgement - Preface

I have been a bit lazy with my posts recently... that is ALL about to change (for a while at least!)

Back last summer, I was lucky enough to spend a week with Peter Checkland of Soft System Methodology fame, and one of his big passions (in fact, I think, one of his main inspirations in systems thinking) was the works of Geoffrey Vickers. I figure that, given Checkland is a great inspiration to me, it would be sensible to understand his fascination with Vickers.

It has taken me six months to get round to buying "The Art of Judgement" by Vickers, mostly because of the price tag.... However, I've bitten the bullet, and I'll blog about it as I read.

In the preface, Vickers gives us this great image of systems thinkers:

"Even the dogs may eat of the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table; and in these days, when the rich in knowledge eat such specialised food at such separate tables, only the dogs have a chance of a balanced diet."

I quickly got over the idea that Vickers was calling me a dog... (probably not personal!)

He wrote this in 1965. In my view of the world, the image of separate specialist tables is still valid today with just a few people sharing ideas across disciplines (here is a great TED talk explaining a paper where a group of cross discipline scientists did collaborate to attempt to better understand the scenarios facing the world following climate change).

This specialisation occurs within my company too. As financial pressure is increased, each functional department is forced to cut the least critical parts of their operation. From the worldviews of the department heads, interdepartmental collaboration tends to be identified as one of the less important functions.

This has meant that the supply chain has become very much isolated from the customer facing parts of the organisation, and finance is isolated from all parts of the organisation!

These changes are relatively recent, so it remains to be seen what the long term effects of this dynamic will be, however, I suspect that the increase in quality problems and decrease in service levels might be the first sign that the full dynamics of the organisation were not understood.