Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2(b): the Apollo programme, the Tory train wreck, and advice to spads starting work today

A few months ago I put a paper on my blog: The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’.

It examined the history of the classified programme to build ICBMs and the way in which George Mueller turned the failing NASA bureaucracy into an organisation that could put man on the moon. The heart of the paper is about the principles behind effective management of complex projects. These principles are relevant to Government, politics, and campaigns.

The paper is long as I thought it worthwhile to tell some of the detailed story. At the suggestion of various spads, ministers, hacks and so on I have cut and pasted the conclusion below particularly for those starting new jobs today. This is in the form of a crude checklist that compares a) the principles of Mueller’s systems management and b) how Whitehall actually works.

You will see that Whitehall operates on exactly opposite principles to those organisations where high performance creates real value. You will also soon see that you are now in a culture in which almost nobody is aware of this and anybody who suggests it sinks their career. In your new department, failure is so normal it is not defined as ‘failure’. Officials lose millions and get a gong. There is little spirit of public service or culture of responsibility. The most political people are promoted and the most competent people, like Victoria Woodcock, leave. The very worst officials are often put in charge of training the next generation. For most powerful officials, the most important thing is preserving the system, closed and impregnable. Unlike for ministers, the TV blaring with DISASTER is of no concern – provided it is the Minister in the firing line not them – and the responsible officials will happily amble to the tube at 4pm while political careers hang in the balance and you draft statements taking ‘full responsibility’ for things you knew nothing about and would have been prohibited from fixing if you had.

For all those spads in particular who are moving into new jobs, it is worth reflecting on the deep principles that actually determine why things work and do not work. Nobody will explain these to you or talk to you about them. Sadly, few MPs these days understand the crucial role of management – they tend to think of it like science as a rather lowly skill beneath their Olympian status – so you will also probably have to cope with the fact that your minister is more interested in keeping one step ahead of Simon Walters (they won’t). The thing that officials will try hardest to do is convey to you that you have no role in personnel decisions and/or management.

If you accept that, you are accepting at the start that you will achieve very little. The reason why Gove’s team got much more done than ANY insider thought was possible – including Cameron and the Perm Sec – was because we bent or broke the rules and focused very hard on a) replacing rubbish officials and bringing in people from outside and b) project management.

You cannot reform the way the civil service works. Only a PM can do that and there is no chance of May doing it – she blew her chance and her reward is to be pushed around by Heywood and Sue Gray until her colleagues pull the plug and start the leadership campaign. You should assume that won’t be long so focus, manage a few priorities with daily and weekly timetables, and use embarrassing errors to negotiate secret deals with the Perm Sec to move rubbish officials out of your priority areas – trust me, Perm Secs understand this game and will do deals with alacrity to make their lives easier. Officials are less politically biased than you probably have been told – they are much more concerned with avoiding hard work and protecting the system than in resisting specific policies, and you can exploit this. Make alliances with the good officials who still have hope and have not been broken by the system, there are surprisingly many who will pop up if they think you actually care about the public rather than party interests.

You will also notice that fundamental issues of organisational culture described below explain the shambles of CCHQ over the past 8 weeks: the lack of information sharing, the lack of orientation, the culture of blaming juniors for the failures of overpaid senior people, bottlenecks preventing fast decisions, endless small errors compounding into a broken organisation because nobody knows who is responsible for what and so on. Every failing organisation has the same stories, people find it very hard to learn from the most successful organisations and people.

To the extent Vote Leave was successful, it was partly because I consciously tried to copy Mueller in various ways, though given my own severe limitations this was patchy. If you ever get the chance to exercise leadership, try to copy people like Mueller who tried to make the world better and build an organisation that people were proud to serve.

Finally, consider the basic condition that allows Westminster and Whitehall to be so rubbish and get away with it: they are not just monopolies, they set the rules of the game, and both the civil service and the parties make it almost impossible for outsiders to influence anything. But a) the combination of the 2008 crisis, Brexit, and extreme unhappiness about politics as usual provides a potentially powerful fuel for an insurgency, and b) technology provides opportunities for startups to catch public imagination and scale extremely fast. I’ve always been sceptical of the idea of a new UK party of any sort but I increasingly think there is a chance that a handful of entrepreneurs could start a sort of anti-party to exploit the broken system and create something which confounds the right/centre/left broken mental model that dominates SW1 and which combines Mueller’s principles with Silicon Valley technology.

If the Tory Party does not make some profound changes fast, then it faces being blamed for the disintegration of Brexit talks and the election of Corbyn after which it is possible that, rather than attempting a coup to take them over, entrepreneurs may decide it is more rational to build something that ploughs them into the earth next to Corbyn.

I said since last summer that if the Tory Party tried to carry on with Brexit and government using the same broken Downing Street operation, which spends its time on crap spin and has almost no capacity for serious management, and the same broken political operation, dominated by people who have failed to persuade the country convincingly for many years, then they would blow up. They failed to change Downing Street and they ran yet another fundamentally misconceived campaign that blew massive structural advantages. Kaboom.

[[Within minutes of publishing this blog I got the following email from someone I haven’t met but who I know was inside CCHQ with the para above highlighted and these words: ‘This is exactly my depressing experience – shit show run by people who don’t care about anything other than their jobs.’]]

MPs of all parties need to realise that the referendum makes it impossible to carry on with your usual bullshit – it forces changes upon you even though you want to carry on with the old games. The first set of MPs that realise this and change their operating principles will quickly overwhelm the others: there is a huge first-mover advantage especially in a field characterised by institutional incompetence that is susceptible to external shocks (terror, financial collapse) and which is opening up to technological disruption. And you will only get on top of Brexit if you realise that leaving the EU is a systems problem requiring a systems response and this means a radically different organisation of the UK negotiating team. The challenge is not far short of the political equivalent of the Apollo program and it needs similarly imaginative management.

For those who do want to do something better, the below will be useful. I encourage you to read the whole history HERE but for those rushing through a sandwich on Day 1 this summary will help you think of the big picture. If you want a detailed tutorial on how the civil service works then read The Hollow Men HERE

[Added later… It is also very instructive that despite the triumph of Mueller’s methods, NASA itself abandoned them after he left and has never recovered. Even spectacular success on a world-changing project is not enough to beat bureaucratic inertia. Also, the US Government passed so many laws that Mueller himself said in later life it would be impossible to repeat Apollo without making it a classified ‘black’ project to evade the regulations. JSOC, US classified special forces, has to run a lot of its standard procurement via ‘black’ procurement processes just to get anything done. The abysmal procurement rules imposed under the Single Market are just one of the good reasons for us to get out of the SM as well as the EU. I had to deal with them a lot in the DfE and had to find ways to cheat them a lot to get things done faster and cheaper. They add billions to costs every year and Whitehall refused for years even to assess this huge area to avoid undermining support for the EU.]


Excerpt from The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2 (p.28ff) 

Core lessons [of Mueller’s systems management] for politics?

Finally, I will summarise some of the core lessons of systems management that could be applied to re-engineering political institutions such as Downing Street.  Mueller’s approach meant an extreme focus on some core principles:

  • Organisation-wide orientation. Everybody in a large organisation must understand as much about the goals and plans as possible. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: I doubt a single department has proper orientation across most of the organisation (few will have it even across the top 10 people), never mind a whole government. This is partly because most ministers fail at the first hurdle — developing coherent goals — so effective orientation is inherently impossible.
  • Integration. There must be an overall approach in which the most important elements fit together, including in policy, management, and communications. Failures in complex projects, from renovating your house to designing a new welfare system, often occur at interfaces between parts. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: for example, Cameron and Osborne approached important policy on immigration/welfare in the opposite way by 1) promising to reduce immigration to less than 100,000 while simultaneously 2) having no legal tools to do this (and even worse promising to change this then failing in the EU renegotiation) and 3) having welfare policies that incentivised more immigration then 4) announcing a new living wage thus increasing incentives further for immigration. They emphasised each element as part of short-term political games and got themselves into a long-term inescapable mess.
  • Extreme transparency and communication, horizontally as well as hierarchically. More, richer, deeper communication so that ‘all of us understand what was going on throughout the program… [C]ommunications on a level that is free and easy and not constrained by the fact that you’re the boss… [This was] the secret of the success of the program, because so many programs fail because everybody doesn’t know what it is they are supposed to do’ (Mueller). Break information and management silos — a denser network of information and commands is necessary and much of it must be decentralised and distributed between different teams, but with leadership having fast and clear information flow at the centre so problems are seen and tackled fast (a virtuous circle). There is very little that needs to be kept secret in government and different processes can easily be developed for that very small number of things. As McChrystal says of special forces operations generally the advantages of communication hugely outweigh the dangers of leaks. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it keeps information secret that does not need to be secret in order to hide its own internal processes from scrutiny, thus adding to its own management failures and distrust (a vicious circle).
  • ‘Configuration management’. There must be a process whereby huge efforts go into the initial design of a complex system then there is a process whereby changes are made in a disciplined way such that a) interdependencies are tested where possible by relevant people before a change is agreed and b) then everybody relevant knows about the change. This ties together design, engineering, management, scheduling, cost, contracts, and allows the coordination of interdisciplinary teams. Test, learn, communicate results, change where needed, communicate… Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it does not put enough effort into the initial design then makes haphazard changes then fails to communicate changes effectively.
  • Physical and information structures should reinforce open communication. From Mueller’s NASA to JSOC, organisations that have coped well with complexity have built novel control centres to reinforce extreme communication. Spend money and time on new technologies and processes to help spread orientation and learning through the organisation. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: e.g. its antiquated committee structure and ‘red box’ system are ludicrously inefficient regarding management but are kept because they give officials huge control over ministers.
  • Long-term budgets. Long-term budgets save money. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: normal government budget processes do not value speed and savings from doing things fast. They are focused on what Parliament thinks this year. This makes it very hard to plan wisely and wastes money in the long-term (see below).
  • You need a complex mix of centralisation and decentralisation. While overall vision, goals, and strategy usually comes from the top, it is vital that extreme decentralisation dominates operationally so that decisions are fast and unbureaucratic. Information must be shared centrally and horizontally across the organisation — it is not either/or. Big complex projects must empower people throughout the network and cannot rely on issuing orders through a hierarchy. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it is a centralising ratchet. E.g. Budgets and spending reviews are the exact opposite of Mueller’s approach. 1) They are short-term with almost no long-term elements. 2) They do not balance off priorities in any serious way. 3) They involve totally fake numbers — every department lies to the Treasury and provides fake numbers. Treasury officials dig into these. There are rounds of these games. Officials never stop lying. To maintain the charade the Chancellor never says to the SoS ‘stop your officials lying to us’ — candour would break the system. 4) The Treasury does not have the expertise to evaluate most of what they are looking at. The idea it is a department staffed by brilliant whiz kids is a joke. I saw DfE officials with very modest abilities routinely cheat the Treasury.
  • Extreme focus on errors. Schriever had ‘Black Saturdays’ and Mueller had similar meetings focused not on ‘reporting progress’ but making clear the problems. Simple as it sounds this is very unusual. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: routinely nobody is held responsible for errors and most management works on the basis of ‘give me good news not bad news’. Neither the culture nor incentives focus effort on eliminating errors. Most don’t care and you see those responsible for disaster ambling to the tube at 4pm or going on holiday amid meltdown.
  • Spending on redundancy to improve resilience. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it tends to treat redundancy as ‘waste’ and its short-term budget processes reinforce decisions that mean out-of-control long-term budgets. By the time the long-term happens, the responsible people have all moved on to better paid jobs and nobody is accountable.
  • Important knowledge is discovered but then the innovation is standardised and codified so it can be easily learned and used by others. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: for example, in the Department for Education officials systematically destroyed its own library. The DfE operated with almost no institutional memory. By the time I left in 2014, after David Cameron banned me from entering any department officials would ask to meet me outside to find out why decisions had been taken in 2011 because three years later almost everybody had moved on to other things. The Foreign Office similarly destroyed its own library.
  • Systems management means lots of process and documentation but at its best it is fluid and purposeful — it is not process for ass-covering. The crucial ‘Gillette Procedures’ swept away red tape and Schriever battled the system to maintain freedom from normal government processes. When asked how he would do a similar programme to Apollo now (1990s) Mueller responded that the only way to do it would be as a classified ‘black’ project to escape the law on issues like procurement. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: its obsession is bullshit process for buck-passing and it fights with all its might against simplification and focus.
  • Saving time saves money. Schriever and Mueller focused on speed and saving time. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: its default mode is to go slower and those who advocate speed are denounced as reckless. Repeatedly in the DfE I was told it was ‘impossible’ to do things in the period I demanded — often less than half what senior officials wanted — yet we often achieved this and there was practically no example of failure that came because my time demands were inherently unreasonable. The system naturally pushes for the longest periods they can get away with to give themselves what they think of as a chance to beat ‘expectations’ but then they often fail on absurdly long timetables. In the DfE we often had a better record of hitting timetables that were ‘impossibly’ short than on those that were traditionally long. Also in many areas there is no downside to pushing fast — the worst that happens is minor and irrelevant embarrassment while the cumulative gains from trying to go fast are huge.
  • The ‘systems’ approach is inherently interdisciplinary ‘because its function is to integrate the specialized separate pieces of a complex of apparatus and people — the system — into a harmonious ensemble that optimally achieves the desired end’ (Ramo). Whitehall now works on opposite principles: it is hopeless at assembling interdisciplinary teams and elevates legal advice over everything in relation to practically any problem, causing huge delays and cost overruns.
  • The ‘matrix management’ system allowed coordination across different departments and different projects.  Whitehall now works on opposite principles. It is stuck with antiquated departments, an antiquated Cabinet Office system, and antiquated project management. Anything ‘cross-government’ is an immediate clue to the savvy that it is doomed and rarely worth wasting time on. A ‘matrix’ approach could and should be applied to break existing hierarchies and speed everything up.
  • People and ideas were more important than technology. Computers and other technologies can help but the main ideas came in the 1950s before personal computers. JSOC applied all sorts of technologies but Colonel Boyd’s dictum holds: people, ideas, technology — in that order. Whitehall now works on opposite principles: for example, the former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, recently blamed a ‘lack of investment’ in IT and a shortage of staff for a huge range of Whitehall blunders. This is really deluded. The central problem is known to all experts and is shown in almost every inquiry: IT projects fail repeatedly in the same ways because of failures of management, not ‘lack of investment’, and adding people to flawed projects is not a solution.

Ministers have little grip of departments and little power to change their direction. They can’t hire or fire and they can’t set incentives. They are almost never in a job long enough to acquire much useful knowledge and they almost never have the sort of management skills that provide alternative value to specific knowledge. They have little chance to change anything and officials ensure this little chance becomes almost no chance.

This story shows how to do things much better than normal. It shows that the principles underlying Mueller’s success are naturally in extreme competition with the principles of management that dominate all normal bureaucracies, public or private. People have been able to read about these principles for decades yet today in Whitehall almost everything runs on exactly the opposite principles: incentives operate to suppress learning. The institutional and policy changes inherent in leaving the EU are a systems problem requiring a systems response. Implementing Mueller’s principles would mean changes to most of the antiquated and failing foundations of Whitehall and bring big improvements and cost savings. Such changes are likely to be resisted by most MPs as well as Whitehall given few of them understand or have experience in high performance teams and would regard Mueller’s approach as a threat to their career prospects.

Because Whitehall is a system failure in which different failures are entangled, its inhabitants tend to potter around in an uncomprehending fog of confusion without understanding why things fail every day and therefore they do not support changes that could improve things even though these changes would be personally advantageous particularly for the first mover.

What is the minimum needed to break bureaucratic resistance and spark a virtuous circle?

How can people outside the system affect mission critical political institutions protected from market competition and resistant to major reforms?

How can we replace many traditional centralised bureaucracies with institutions that mimic successful biological systems such as the immune system that a) use distributed information processing to identify useful structure in the environment, b) find ‘good enough’ solutions in a vast search space of possibilities, and c) move at least ten times faster than existing systems?

[If you find this interesting and/or useful, then the PDF of the whole story is here. It involves some of the cleverest people of the 20th Century, such as John von Neumann.]


6 thoughts on “Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2(b): the Apollo programme, the Tory train wreck, and advice to spads starting work today

  1. Having been a ‘foot-soldier’ in Vote Leave, I had a clear programme of largely Saturday street stalls and leaflet deliveries to follow. Determined to support the Conservatives in the General Election to ensure the proper Brexit we voted for (no EU payments, no single market, no customs union and no ECJ) and get rid of a Labour MP, who is not up to the job, I was disappointed.

    First of all I was surprised that a candidate had to be appointed. Secondly, I was dismayed that we distributed leaflets about the candidate really quite late. Thirdly, I never sensed direction and a plan of action. I know social media is important these days, but leaflets in the door indicate commitment and, for some, may be the only information on local candidates.

    So, I understand your frustration with Conservative HQ. With experience in aircraft engineering, what Whitehall and politicians need is more engineers to inculcate the systems approach. However, professional engineers tend to be politically apathetic and do not want to get into a failed system. We look down on politicians and, frankly, many in the arts and humanities fail to impress us. I also understand now why senior officers in 2 of my professional bodies get so frustrated with getting over employers’ needs to the Department of Education.

    • Surely, the conduct of politics can never be reduced to the application of systems theory. No “engineer” will ever be able to account for the behaviour of those about to vote – all those “invisible hands” their opinions (doxa) and interests…politics is not a science (episteme) so don’t expect it to be vulnerable to any version of scientific method…engineering or otherwise.

  2. This is a side point, but in “The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard” Colonel Burton places much of the blame for the failures of the navy’s a-12 aircraft on its status as a “black” project free from scrutiny:
    “Special Access,” or “black,” programs have mushroomed during the past decade. As indicated earlier, these programs are classified Special Access more to prevent critical review from within the Defense establishment than to hide secrets from the enemy.
    This is sharp contrast to your note that “JSOC, US classified special forces, has to run a lot of its standard procurement via ‘black’ procurement processes just to get anything done.” I’m not sure what the lesson is though.

  3. Fascinating.
    Dominic if a great PM ever came in, what is the main reform to the civil service that could solve the lack of accountability you describe?
    I am sure they will claim that giving ministers hire and fire power would “politicise” it… And no doubt there is a grain of truth in that.

  4. Gov procurement officer here. Spend large parts of day seeking ways around EU Procurement Rules. These must go if we are to ever start spending tax-payer’s money effectiely in UK.

    They create a radically unproductive culture which incentivises arse-covering at the expense of getting a good deal.

    The working hours of procurement officials are dominated by ensuring they are “compliant” over figuring out what would actually create value. No one ever gets rewarded for a good deal. The rewards come from how “compliant” you are. Which mainly manifests in prioritising the avoidance of legal challenge. “Look at this, Mr. Director – we spent £30,000,000 – and no legal challenges!” No one ever asks whether we actually got a good deal for our £30m.

    Tax payers’ cash must be freed from the long, slow chokehold of the EU Public Procurement Directives. Or we are all going to hell.

    If there is ever a new party based on these principles – sign me up now.

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