Tag Archives: Politics

We don’t make Widgets – Ken Miller

“Government is a bunch of hardworking people, trapped in dysfunctional systems, who produce invisible things for people who do not want them, on behalf of others who do, for reasons we rarely articulate and can hardly measure.”

Most government employees—perhaps most employees, these days—would say they don’t make widgets. They provide services, help others, and answer questions. Fair enough. But, says Ken Miller, they have the wrong idea of widgets. An answer can be a widget; so can a service. A widget is anything created by work which can be given to someone else to achieve a desired outcome.

Ken Miller outlines three myths that hinder the improvement of government. One, governments don’t make widgets; two, governments don’t have customers; three, governments aren’t there to make a profit. In a literal sense, these are all plausible. Believing them, he argues, can also prevent government from learning and improving.

If everyone is making widgets, everyone is a plant manager. The analogy, says Miller, can provide useful insights, regardless of whether it is literally true or not. If a widget plant is to improve, it must make widgets better, make better widgets, or make new widgets that lead to better outcomes. The same three areas are where government can improve. Those three things are also the key areas to measure. Every manager needs to know how good their process is, how good their product is, and whether they can make better products to better meet the needs of their customers.

The analogy can sometimes be taken in the wrong way. Serving customers isn’t the same as doing whatever they want: Ford doesn’t give away free cars, even though customers might want them to. In the same way, having oil companies as customers doesn’t mean doing what they want. It means acting in the interests of shareholders, in this case taxpayers, and regulating them for the benefit of all.

The book is short, clear and compelling, a summary of how the private sector perspective can benefit governments. Of course, that isn’t the end of the story, and such a perspective can also go too far. Government is different from the private sector. Innovation, however, comes from interdisciplinary work, and both government and the private sector can benefit from studying the lessons of the other.

The Fix – Jonathan Tepperman

“At a time when most of us have glumly concluded that our governments are broken and our domestic and international problems are insurmountable, I aim to show how the right individuals can overcome the most intimidating obstacles–if they follow the right strategies. This book makes a data driven case for optimism at a moment of gathering darkness…One of the basic premises of this book is that while the details of all the troubles currently wracking the world vary, they share an underlying cause: the failure of politicians to lead.”

The Fix introduces ten big problems, and ten countries or places which have successfully overcome them to flourish. Not all solutions can be transplanted or last for the long-term, of course, but they provide ideas and inspiration to the rest of us. The ten are:

  1. Inequality – Lula in Brazil with his Bolsa Familia (Cash grants to the poor)
  2. Immigration – Pierre Trudeau in Canada (Intentional multiculturalism)
  3. Islamic Extremism – Indonesia (Rehabilitate terrorists, and co-opt their agenda)
  4. Civil War – Rwanda (Village-level court system to sentence those involved in the genocide)
  5. Corruption – Singapore (strict penalties, systemic changes, and high pay for officials)
  6. Resource Curse – Botswana (Establish good institutions first)
  7. Energy – U.S. Shale gas (Strong property rights)
  8. Middle-Income Trap – South Korea (Use crises to strengthen the system)
  9. Political Gridlock (International) – Enrique Pena Nieta in Mexico (in the first part of his term, at least – bargain with everything on the table so can trade in reciprocity)
  10. Political Gridlock (U.S.) – Bloomberg’s fight against terrorism in NYC (Get the data and do the right thing)

The book is great fun. It’s well written, in a clear, informal style, and the author clearly had fun researching and writing it. His list is in some ways notable for what it omits—global warming does not appear, I suspect because there are no countries that have cracked it—but for all that they are still ten big problems. Some of his solutions I doubt will work elsewhere, or at least will require completely reformulating, but they remain interesting and very relevant.

Disclosure: I read The Fix as an advance reader copy. You can read reviews and order your own copy here: The Fix.

United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good – Cory Booker

“What we need now, more than anything else, are people willing to serve as uniters–people in our communities who can rally others for the greater good, reject cynicism and winner-take-all politics, and embrace the more difficult work of this generation: to unite our country in common cause.” – Cory Booker

A man sees a child drowning in a river, jumps in, and drags her to the bank. As he gets the child to safety, he sees another one, dives in, and retrieves him. He sees more children, and keeps diving in, again and again. As he reaches his limits, he sees another man walking by. He yells at him to help – there are children in the river! The man ignores him, and starts walking faster. He yells again, and the man starts sprinting. The man yells a third time – what are you doing, there are kids in the river! The other man finally turns around and says: “I’m going upriver so I can find out why all those kids are in the river and stop it!”

Cory Booker is the fourth black person to be popularly elected to the Senate (the third was Barack Obama). His name was tossed around as a potential vice-presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton. At his best, he actively strives to appeal to left and right, focusing on making people’s lives better and serving the common good rather than partisan politics.

The book can be inspiring. Booker has done some amazing things, including a tremendous focus on reducing crime and encouraging economic development in Newark, where he became city counsellor and then mayor. He has in many ways forged his own reputation through his personal involvement in public service, and that’s a testament to his determination. My only complaint would be he occasionally misunderstands economics, such as when he discusses the tragedy of the commons, but then he is a lawyer by training, not an economist. An engaging read about a prominent US politician.

If we can put a man on the Moon…: Getting big things done in government – William D. Eggers and John O’Leary

“The requirements for achieving great things are two simple but far from easy steps–wisely choosing which policies to pursue and then executing those policies. The difference between success and failure is execution.”

It has become something of a truism that just having good ideas isn’t enough: they also have to be implemented well. Eggers and O’Leary (who should be a comedy duo, based on their names) argue that because we don’t always realize this, we tend to spend a lot of time looking for someone to blame when something goes wrong, rather than realizing the flaw is often systemic. When we try to solve a systems problem by changing an individual, we inevitably fail.

The book maps out how to end up with a good public policy. Start with a good idea; turn that idea into a specific design, often through writing some draft legislation; win approval for the idea (more of an issue in the American system than in Parliamentary ones, in which the party often has a majority already and so the parliamentary step is straightforward); implement it competently; generate the desired results; and over time, re-evaluate and look for ways to do better. All the while, of course, avoiding classic traps like confirmation bias, overconfidence, and complacency.

The book is strongest if you aren’t familiar with the various ‘innovative’ practices going around already. Unfortunately, most of their examples—prizes for innovation, hackathons, the London congestion charge, etc—have been analyzed at length in the past. Eggers and O’Leary come from the American civil service, for which the practices are relatively new, but for other readers most of it won’t seem that exciting. The authors also have a disturbing tendency to make up their own non-intuitive names for things, which can sometimes be confusing. Overall, not a bad book, but probably not new for most readers in the field.

The New Russia – Mikhail Gorbachev

“You, M. Diderot, propose sweeping changes, but you write on paper, which is very durable, whereas I must write on human skin, and that is very sensitive.” – Catherine the Great, to Diderot

Gorbachev is a titanic figure in modern history. American stories of victory aside, it takes two to end a war peacefully, and Gorbachev played that role in the USSR. Without him the outcome, though possibly the same in the end, could have been much more violent.

In The New Russia, Gorbachev looks back on Russia’s recent history. His key message is the importance of dialogue and cooperation, the same notes that led to the end of the Cold War. Gradualism and a middle path, he suggests, are fundamental to achieving real, sustainable change, in contrast to the shock therapy in Russia in the 90s, or the Arab Spring today. He also emphasizes the cost to people: he quotes Catherine the Great above as a reason to be careful in making changes, least the changes hurt those who can handle it least.

He issues a clarion call for democracy: one built on the cultural characteristics, traditions, mentality and national character of the relevant nation, but one that also has certain basic features. He highlights regular honest elections, a stable constitutional order, a balance of power between the three orders of government, competition between political parties, respect for basic human rights, a just and impartial legal system, and a developed civil society as essential to a successful democracy, no matter where.

The New Russia underscores one of the fundamental tensions between the US and Russia today. Russia sees itself as a great power, one that should be consulted at every turn: indeed, for most of history it has been. In the last twenty years, however, it has not been, and its pride is deeply wounded. Were positions reversed, and the USA a declining power, I suspect it would feel identically. Unfortunately, this pride and belief in its own exceptionalism leads to a scrabble for power that, even when as in Syria it works, can be enormously costly to the world.

The only weakness for me was the limited discussion of Ukraine and Syria. Having written a book about the need for dialogue and cooperation, Russia’s interventions in both countries appear only at the end, and are not well discussed or analyzed. It would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts on both.

The New Russia is a little longer than it needs to be. Like many politicians, Gorbachev remains wounded by some hurts he took while in power, and he discusses them at more length than necessary, making parts of the book a bit slow. Still, given Russia’s recent surge in activity, a book worth reading.

Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: The New Russia.

Simpler: The Future of Government – Cass R. Sunstein

This book is “about how governments can be much better, and do much better, if they make people’s lives easier and get rid of unnecessary complexity.” – Simpler

Regular readers will have noted I haven’t posted for several weeks – my apologies. I have just started a new job, and the adjustment period for getting up to speed has taken some time. It’s been busy! I am hoping to start getting back to a regular review schedule, however.

In the spirit of being busy, however, I thought I’d start with Simpler. The book’s point is an obvious one: we would be better off if the world was a little less complicated, and governments should do their part to help. Where it gets difficult, of course, is in the details.

Simpler opens with the charming story of Sunstein’s first date with Samantha Power, his future wife (and yes, the U.S. ambassador to the UN): when she asked him what his dream job was, he dreamily admitted it was to lead OIRA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House. Not everybody’s dream job, but one he would end up having under Obama, overseeing the creation of regulations across government.

The book is a collection of the lessons Sunstein has learned serving in government and approaches he adopted at OIRA to improve regulation, from retrospective analysis to cost-benefit studies. He argues that governments fail to make things simple, whether because they neglect it to focus on other things, because they believe it doesn’t matter, or because they don’t realize that the laws they pass are not, in fact, simple. Adding simplicity can increase compliance, make people’s lives better, and ensure that the best possible policies are passed.

Unfortunately, simplicity is generally an uncontroversial good; the challenge is doing it, not wanting it. As a result, the book spends quite a bit of time discussing nudges, the subject of Sunstein’s last book, and it doesn’t add much to what was written there. I would have preferred more time spent on some of his experiences as head of OIRA trying to simplify, both successes and failures. The elephant in the room is also that many of Obama’s laws are not exactly simple: for all the benefits of the tools he argues for, alone they aren’t enough to enable simplicity.

Sunstein is clearly right. Simplicity is good, and the more we can base policies on evidence the better. If you already believe that, I’m not sure this book will push your understanding farther, and if you don’t, I suspect you won’t read the book. If what you want is a a brief overview of some useful regulatory approaches—experiments, retrospective analysis, cost-benefit, and others—then the book is not a bad place to start, however.

History’s People – Margaret MacMillan

“Our understanding and enjoyment of the past would be impoverished without its individuals, even though we know that history’s currents — its underlying forces and shifts, whether of technology or political structures or social values — must never be ignored.” – History’s People

In the 1980s, it was believed that stress caused ulcers. Dr. Barry Marshall, a relatively unknown internal medicine specialist in Australia, believed it was bacteria that caused ulcers and indeed most stomach cancers, but the medical establishment remained highly skeptical, as did the drug companies, which were making a considerable profit on antacids and antidepressants. To convince them, Marshall downed a mix made of bacteria from the stomach of one of his patients. He did indeed get ulcers. He took antibiotics and got better. And in 2005 he got the Nobel Prize for medicine. (He now works on flu vaccines).

Learning history by reading biographies is tricky; it is always hard to tell if the hero makes the times, or the times the hero. History’s People avoids that issue entirely, arguing that both clearly matter, but that regardless studying biography gives us insight into history in a way that more general studies can never do. She chooses 5 themes–leadership, hubris, daring, curiosity, and observation—and chooses a handful of figures from history, both Canadian and international, to illustrate and illuminate the idea.

MacMillan is one of the world’s preeminent historians, and as usual her writing is clear and compelling. History’s People is based on a series of radio lectures she gave (The Massey lectures), and rather than attempting to present full biographies, she introduces brief vignettes that give us a flavour of their lives and the trait she is trying to demonstrate. The method works very well, and manages to achieve both breadth and depth. This book won’t teach you history, but if you like history, you’ll relish reading it.

Memoirs – Brian Mulroney

“What would be said of a generation that sought the stars but permitted its lakes and streams to languish and die?” – Mulroney

Mulroney was the second-ever Conservative Canadian Prime Minister to be re-elected for a second term (the first was John A, Canada’s first PM). He was also deeply unpopular at several points during his time in office, and remains very controversial. He did, however, orchestrate a number of policies with lasting impact: the Free Trade Agreement with the US, introducing the GST, fighting South African Apartheid, encouraging Quebec to join La Francophonie, moderating spending after the large increase in national debt from Pierre Trudeau, and signing an acid rain agreement with the US.

His memoirs are not a post-politics, statesman’s view of his time in office, so if you’re looking for objectivity look elsewhere. He clearly still has strong feelings on some of the events that occurred, particularly what he sees as a betrayal by Pierre Trudeau when Trudeau violently opposed Mulroney’s attempt to get Quebec to agree to the Canadian constitution at Meech Lake – Trudeau brought in the Canadian constitution in 1982 without the approval of Quebec, and Mulroney believed that without a deal that brought Quebec in from the cold, separatism was a real threat. Whether that’s true or not remains disputed, and Trudeau argued that Mulroney was simply pandering to Quebec.

At some points it feels like he’s trying to rewrite history by putting his own views forward. He is also charmingly frank on some points, however, and comes across as a phenomenally gifted negotiator and master of interpersonal relations. Almost all his major successes were about negotiation, from international treaties and fighting apartheid in South Africa, to negotiating constitutional agreements with unanimous support from the provinces, something even Pierre Trudeau couldn’t manage. His relationships with others served Canada well at a number of junctures, including when the UK attempted to stop the expansion of the G-5 to include Canada, an attempt that almost succeeded until Reagan, who got along famously with Mulroney, stood up and refused to be part of a club that didn’t have Canada as a member. I would guess that’s why he is still angry about Trudeau: he took a perceived betrayal hard.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy, interestingly, has been the environment. In 2006 he was honoured as the Greenest PM in history: beyond signing the acid rain treaty, he created eight new national parks and brought in the environmental protection act, and remains vocal about global warming. Quite a contrast to more modern Conservative party positions.

Inside the Nudge Unit – David Halpern

The UK Nudge Unit is the most trendy thing in behavioural economics these days, and quite possibly one of the most exciting things in government. To my mind, their basic message is twofold. First, that people should pay a little more attention to the details of how policies and programs are implemented; little things, like how a notice of overdue taxes is phrased, can make a big difference to how effective it is. Second, that we should be testing our policies: that experiments and randomized control trials can play a key role in making sure we know what works and how governments can best serve their citizens.

The idea behind behavioural insights is that small, even superficial changes to things can make a big difference. If you tell people that everyone else pays their taxes, they’re more likely to do so; if you offer to clean people’s lofts if they agree to insulate it, even if you charge them for the cleaning, they’re more likely to insulate their lofts (which reduces carbon emissions); texting people that they still owed fines to the UK Court service increased payment rates, saving money on bailiffs and courts’ time. Small changes, but a few percentage points increase in taxes paid can save millions of dollars.

The team started with an admirable focus: if they didn’t manage to transform at least two major areas of policy, spread understanding of behavioural approaches across the UK government, and achieve a tenfold return on the cost of the unit, it would be shut down on its second anniversary. More government programs could do with such a motivator. The fact that they’re still around testifies to the enormous impact they’ve had.

David Halpern, as head of the Nudge Unit, is clearly a true believer, and he glosses over some things that I suspect his critics would not. He doesn’t mention, for example, one of the Nudge Unit’s most controversial policies, attempting to convince immigrants to leave the UK: while he discusses some potential ethical objections to nudging generally, he rapidly concludes that none of them hold water and that nudging is perfectly acceptable, which I’m not sure all readers will agree with. He also spends a lot of time explaining behavioural economics more generally, but to be honest if you want a general primer I’d start with Nudge or Thinking Fast and Slow – the value added of this book is the actual story of the Nudge Unit, and it is unfortunate he doesn’t spend more time on that. Still, if you’re interested in behavioural economics, well worth the read, though I wouldn’t start with it.

Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View – Bob Plecas

Bill Bennett was premier of BC (governor, for American readers) for eleven years with a majority government each time, and he managed the rare trick of retiring while he was still on top. His successor, Bill Vander Zalm, won the subsequent election, unlike Kim Campbell when she took over for Mulroney at the federal level, for example.

Bill Bennett oversaw Expo 86, which included a massive redevelopment of False Creek in Vancouver and the Skytrain; the construction of the Coquihalla Highway; chaired the premiers council while Pierre Trudeau was working on constitutional repatriation; and, most controversially, implemented a massive program of spending restraint, gutting a number of social services and labour laws in an effort to strengthen the BC economy, which was struggling in response to a crash in commodity prices.

He remains a controversial figure, but I suspect even his critics would admit that he truly believed in the policies he promoted, to the extent that he intentionally bore the blame for them so that his successor would not be tainted. He also implemented a number of lower-key reforms in an effort to achieve good financial management, and several of those have since become standard procedure among Canadian governments, including changing the role of the Treasury Board to oversee financial accountability, and using an external auditor to review provincial finances.

Whether you agree with his policies (and respect his legacy) depends on which side of the ideological divide you’re on – he is loathed by the left in BC, and respected by the right. His focus on financial accountability, however, is something that both sides of the aisle could learn from. Government spending, as Plecas rightly points out, is at the margin: politicians care about new programs and ideas, because that’s what gets votes. In order to afford new programs, though, you have to manage your current programs carefully. A lessons all governments could take to heart.