DO POLITICIANS ‘GET’ STRATEGY?

7 01 2012

It has been an interesting week for observing politicians in the UK and looking for some understanding of strategy. Party leaders, new initiatives and the use of social media have all been in the spotlight but what do the events of the week tell us about how much those running the country understand strategy?

Let’s start with Labour peer Maurice Glasman who said Ed Miliband’s leadership of his party lacks strategy leading to plenty of denials from the leader of the opposition and his team but to very little in the way of evidence to support those denials. The content of the denials did however expose the important reason behind the lack of strategy; in general British politicians simply do not get it, they appear to define having an idea and a set of goals as the same thing as strategy. It is not. (I will tackle confusing goals with strategy in a future blog).

Many of our current crop of politicians come from a generation where strategy has been neglected, the New Labour project showed the way forward and that way forward was through the use of ‘Initiativeitis’ – a term coined by current Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson shortly after the last election.

Times were good, funding was plentiful. This allowed the gaps in understanding of strategy to be overlooked while goals and problems alike were dealt with by launching a seemingly never ending stream of initiatives and, with time, politicians started confusing goals with strategy. Initiativeitis was king; strategy had been deposed.

But having been deposed did not mean the worth of strategy was diminished. Where good strategy brings increased effectiveness, efficiency and economy; with funding and finance plentiful no one was really concerned whether initiativeitis offered the same value for money.

Then came the banking crisis, followed by the election and then a new government. The early signs brought hope that we had politicians who understood strategy. Robertson coined the term initiativeitis before proceeding to launch a series of ….. initiatives. When challenged he promised he had a strategy; when challenged to produce said strategy he went silent. Eighteen months on, we still wait, the hope given by those early signs long since passed.

It would be wrong to single Robertson out; his poor understanding of strategy is no different to that of his colleagues. The need to save money to reduce the national debt is not being addressed by vertically integrated strategy; it is being addressed by the biggest ‘initiative’ yet, one of slash and burn. Cuts, cuts and more cuts.  Seeking to continue to deliver services but in a more effective, efficient and economical way was ignored and substituted by a policy of cut and save.

Other symptoms which demonstrate a lack of understanding of good strategy have emerged. Ignoring the big picture by implementing piecemeal small picture initiatives and failing to consider cause and effect have become regular themes.

The Bombardier issue was a great example of seeking to award a contract on ‘best value’ where value was defined far too narrowly. This was the cause of an effect which ultimately will offer significantly less value to the national purse when the economic impact of 1400 redundancies at Bombardier and at least the same number in the local economy are taken into account. Increased benefit payments and lower high street spending sees money leaving the exchequer through one hand and not coming back through the other. Value?

This week has seen government backing for the Network Rail review suggesting they will go ahead with the HS2 high speed rail link between London and Birmingham. Yet again, there is no ‘big picture’ thinking; there is no integrated transport strategy considering rail, road, air and water only another big initiative for one rail line which might have potential to link with Leeds and Manchester sometime in the future.

In among the bleak picture I paint there has been a small light; the Prime Minister’s handling of the Euro Zone crisis (whether you agreed with his actions or not) demonstrated good understanding of the need for issue based strategy (that which confronts immediate need) over the rest of Europe’s insistence on maintaining the vision without addressing that immediate need. Unfortunately, that brief flicker of light appears to have been a fluke rather than strategy as the government continues to talk about tackling the ‘now’ without considering the demands of planning for a healthy future, for example by diversifying away from the economy’s over-reliance on banking.

Where does the PM take his advice on strategy from? One of the world’s leading Blue Sky thinkers, Steve Hilton is David Cameron’s ‘Director of Strategy’. Unfortunately, blue sky thinking is not strategy and, valuable function though it can provide, smacks (again) of confusing goals with strategy, of designing initiatives not seeking vertically integrated effective, efficient, economical solutions.

Meanwhile, back in the ranks of the opposition, Ed Miliband has defended himself from Lord Glasman’s remarks by informing us that he does have a plan for Labour but that it would be wrong to be laying down detailed policy so far ahead of the next election. It is a fair point but, given his party’s own record on initiativeitis (i.e. inventing it), are we talking strategy or are we talking goals and yet more initiatives?

Despite a growing mountain of evidence that the current government do not understand strategy, the opposition have not once taken them to task on the subject. This suggests that Glasman’s remarks are not wide of the mark but overlook the reason; that his party’s leader does not have a strategy because, like much of Westminster, he does not understand strategy.

Even the use of social media is providing evidence of the political blind-spot. For most who use it, social media is a great tool for doing nothing more than keeping in touch and letting your friends know what you are up to. For politicians as for business it needs to be more than that. The use of social media requires its own strategy, each strand linked to the others to tell the story the politician and his party are aiming to tell.

Ed Miliband used Twitter to mourn the passing of ‘Blackbusters’ (sic) presenter Bob Holness, on a personal level quite touching but in terms of planned thinking? Diane Abbott this week used Twitter to cause disquiet through racially discriminatory comments. True, she (eventually) apologised but what place did those tweets have in her or her party’s social media ‘strategy’? Regular users of Twitter will have seen politicians of all hues talk of ‘great meetings’ and ‘shaking hands with the public’. Sky News (Saturday 7th January) even reported one (unnamed) Conservative MP who tweeted that after a whole day’s canvassing everyone he met was a Tory! Maybe the strategy is to prove himself delusional or that he thinks the electorate that gullible?

Is it important? Consider it this way, if they can’t grasp strategy on the micro-level of social media what chance the macro-level of running a country?

Last year a McKinsey survey placed European (including the UK) business bottom of the worldwide table for understanding of strategy. One wonders where a similar survey would place our politicians.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, January 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

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11 01 2012
HS2: WHY WE DON’T KNOW WHO IS RIGHT AND WHO IS WRONG « Cowan Global Blog

[…] predicted in my last blog, the government has come out in favour of the proposals for the new high-speed rail line from […]

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