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Strategy: beware the four horsemen of policy eclipse

Posted By on May 22, 2014 @ 06:00

Viktor Vasnetsov's Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, painted in 1887.The debate over what constitutes strategy has been enjoyable but, inevitably, failed to reach a shared agreement over the proper shape of the beast. That’s all to the good because strategy is a big concept and should be broad enough to encompass different approaches. I remain puzzled by Rob Ayson’s view (here and here), with its Wagnerian picture of strategy—all purposeful interaction. And Brendan Taylor’s hard-line view, that strategy must be tied exclusively to the use of military force, although admirably Clausewitzian, also strikes me as just too narrow for modern-day needs.

But let’s put those differences to one side. All our debaters hopefully share one view, which is that whatever it is, however it’s done, more strategy is needed to improve government policy making. Yet—and here I go back to my original post about policy making in DFAT—strategy struggles for air right now as a viable policy tool. Make no mistake, dear readers, the enemies of strategy walk amongst us, not just in Canberra, but in the capitals of most countries we count as allies and friends. Think of the policy-making world as a market: some goods sell, others linger on the shelves. Over the last decade or so, two of the biggest selling items in this market have been risk-reduction and crisis management. Those are qualities attractive to many governments. Strategy conceived of as complex, multi-faceted, long term planning (as opposed to Rob’s purposeful Norse God wrestling matches) hasn’t been such a seller. As in any market, if there’s no demand for a good, sooner or later it will go out of production.

Strategy’s future depends on our capacity to vanquish its policy-making enemies: short-termism; risk aversion; groupthink; and failures of imagination. Think of these as the four horsemen of policy eclipse. (I must be warming to the strategy-as-Wagner theme.)

Policy short-termism is driven in Australia by three-year terms for the federal government and by the impact of 24/7 news media coverage. Those two cycles constrain government behaviour, often forcing quicker reactions and outcomes than policymakers can deliver. To take a practical example, the Government’s National Commission of Audit was given a remit no less than to review the quality of all federal government expenditure. Announced in late October 2013 the commission finalised its massive report in mid-February 2014. Government was criticised for not releasing the report until 1 May. Media coverage of the report lasted no more than a couple of days before attention turned to the budget. The whole exercise was hatched and dispatched in barely seven months. The speed of modern politics played out in the media overwhelms strategy.

Risk-aversion undermines the ability of strategic planning to look for new or unexpected solutions to policy problems. Public servants are rewarded for managing risks away, but risk-taking is often an essential part of producing better policy: think of John Howard proposing an East Timor referendum on independence or of Gough Whitlam opening ties with China. Risk-free policy usually means strategy-free also.

Group-think isn’t a new concept, but Canberra is susceptible to it for a number of reasons. First, it’s just a reality that much of the policy-making community is cut from the same cloth—a noble fabric to be sure, but one that’s lacking in diversity. The community tends to school like fish. There are well defined channels for political and public service career success—you only climb a greasy pole one way and that tends to produce widely-shared assumptions and behaviours. Second, Canberra doesn’t have easy access to the business community or other sectors that can bring different perspectives to bear. For strategy-makers, the problem is how to challenge assumptions and unseat old approaches to problems. Are we really being innovative or are we just doing another turn around the fish-bowl?

Finally, there’s lack of imagination. Show me an imaginative bureaucrat and I’ll show you someone who wants to redesign their job. The reward system isn’t really geared to undisciplined creative types. Bow-ties are barely tolerated. But strategy does require imagination and a willingness to question why current policy settings are as they are. Bureaucracies need to find room to allow red-teams and internal-challenge processes. Governments need to find ways to call on this type of policy innovation. Indeed a number of recent Prime Ministers have said they want more imagination applied to policy development.

The four horsemen of policy eclipse are certainly out riding on the Molonglo plain. Those who value strategy need to take account of the challenges they present. Notwithstanding the challenges, good strategy is still the key to shaping good policy. It’s an essential skill for any organisation to nurture and one that ultimately rewards with lasting policy outcomes.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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[1] Image: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Four-horsemen.jpg

[2] here : http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/is-dfat-doing-more-strategy-than-we-think/

[3] here: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/why-strategy-isnt-navel-gazing/

[4] Brendan Taylor: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-lost-meaning-of-strategy/

[5] Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Four_Horsemen_of_the_Apocalypse?uselang=en-gb#mediaviewer/File:Apocalypse_vasnetsov.jpg