The American sociologist Robert K. Merton popularized the idea of unforeseen consequences, so says Wikipedia. An unforeseen consequence (UC) is simply what happens when you get a result that’s different from what you expected or planned for. You can break this down into three buckets—good, bad, and perverse.
A good UC looks a lot like luck and we know what that is. A bad UC is what happens when something negative tags along for a ride with the good consequence, or the one we expect. The operation was a success but the patient died. Finally, perverse UC’s are what happens when you plan left and everything goes right. A UC that is unforeseen and makes a problem worse is perverse. For Prime Minister David Cameron, the Brexit vote is perverse.
Cameron went into the situation expecting an easy win but found himself campaigning for his political life just to get the polling too close to call, but it wasn’t. When the results came in Cameron and the UK were holding the short stick. The perverse consequences are numerous. For instance, despite the non-binding nature of the referendum, Cameron now sees it as his duty to carry out the will of the people. But I wonder how many people didn’t vote because the whole Brexit nonsense was non-binding.
At any rate the larger and more perverse outcome of the vote might be either the final death of much that’s now classified as journalism, or the emergence of CRM as a necessity of government. Here’s my thinking.
The government-constituent relationship may be the last one governed almost exclusively by broadcast media including print and electronic media such as radio and TV but not exclusively including the Internet. Independent news organizations scour their geographies looking for news as they define it to report. But all of the traditional approaches at best represent half of a loop. How do constituents return questions, comments, or corrections? Usually they don’t and government misses key feedback.
The focus group has been a favorite of the political class for a long time, even now after business has conspicuously moved on to social media. Politicians have social media of course; one need only search for their Twitter feeds to confirm this. But as is usually the case with new technologies, the politicians are using social incorrectly in this case as if it were a less expensive broadcast megaphone and not a two-way communicator. The problem with all this is that politicians and businesses before them can and do say pretty much anything they please in all of their broadcast outlets including social.
If you look at the Brexit campaign or the US presidential contest, you can see that all parties treat the truth as a quaint artifact and plunge ahead saying anything they please. Actually, for any given issue one party is telling the truth more or less while the other is promising the repeal the law of gravity. This sets up an unequal dichotomy since repealing gravity with all the associated chaos it would bring is much, much sexier than most forms of truth telling.
All of this has a point. Not long ago the vendor community was dealing with the difficulties of retail marketing—attempting the one-to-one model on a huge scale without benefit of technology. It can’t be done. The best a vendor can hope for in such a situation is to broadcast some bland ad and hope for the best. In the world of markets this worked reasonably well in that most vendors managed to get a respectable slice of their markets.
But government is way, way, way different. Where markets are pluralistic, government, especially winning power, is binary. You can have a nice life with say, 30 percent of your market but in politics and government generally you need half plus one vote to control things. Hence the 48 percent voting against Brexit are plain old out of luck. It doesn’t matter that the UK just officially voted to effectively repeal gravity, it’s that 52 percent said, sure, I wonder what my gas mileage will be like now.
So the point is this: If business can’t be satisfied with the hit or miss marketing it was used to, can government be different? Can government be complacent with letting a third party intermediate the news? The problem is that too much news coverage has become little more than chasing the controversy and not the story. Since the last election there’s been a noble attempt to fact check political statements but fact checking is after the fact.
The last 50 years have given us ample examples of why after the fact checking is no good. In the 1970’s and 80’s we discovered that quality manufacturing needed to be built in not added on at final inspection. In the CRM era we learned much the same lesson about customer-facing business processes. Now we face the same basic problem in the last bastion of old style broadcast media, government.
People used to consume broadcast media for things like classified, personal, and help wanted ads as well as the news. But those media cash cows are gone to the Internet and are largely free today. So understandably to retain eyeballs the media tried to make their remaining products sexier by chasing controversy rather than the source stories. It’s not working as the hyper-expensive hyperbole around any democratic election shows.
Journalism won’t die but in the face of the frenzy around every bright and shiny object dangled before the public by any citizen with a Twitter account, every democratic government now has to ask if there are better ways for communicating. We need more reliable ways to understand people’s needs and we need better ways to communicate solutions to them, that’s why CRM as a government function is no longer a pipe dream, it’s a necessity.
Vendors discovered a long time ago that they had to be able to communicate through any channel that customers happened to use. The same thing is true for governments and citizens. Social media and CRM have trained the electorate to form communities and socialize ideas. Perhaps your 70-year-old aunt isn’t going to use a smartphone, that’s okay, perhaps she still goes into the bank lobby too. But we can’t expect to run modern governments only with the tools that will appeal to that aunt.
Right now it appears that government is being disrupted but really it’s a communications revolution that’s forming and the only reason the disruptors are winning is that there’s little opposition. It’s time to level the playing field by introducing CRM tools for government functions.
Results of the recent UK referendum on leaving the European Union will be playing out for many months to come. How it plays out, and the shape of the ultimate result, are still very much undecided. Already hypotheses about thwarting the apparent “will of the people” are gaining currency and, as an American with at best tangential understanding of the situation, I am nonetheless willing to offer some ideas.
In noble style David Cameron fell on his sword after the vote by announcing his resignation effective possibly by October. This is exactly the wrong course for a bunch of reasons. First, I was surprised to learn that the referendum was non-binding. True believers will no doubt say it’s the will of the people and must be obeyed. But I refer them to my mother who often told me, if everybody else was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge would you jump too?
In truth, the referendum was the result of a self-seeking and narcissistic politician who threw the country under the bus to assure party unity and his own re-election. Much of politics today is cynical, and crass and aside Donald Trump’s pronouncements on any given day, Cameron’s Faustian bargain might become the poster child narcissism by a sitting elected official.
If Cameron was really so dead set against leaving the union then he should realize that at the moment he is playing, or at least could play, with house money. The result of the vote has encouraged factions in at least in France and the Netherlands to seek their own plebiscite. This can’t be good for Europe for if either of these countries were to also fall to the siren song of ditching the EU, it could start a stampede for the exit. At some no far off point all that might be left of the EU would be Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain plus their banker and not-so-benevolent overlord, Germany. Oh, and I almost forgot, the useless Euro which can be seen as a primary reason for the breakup.
Cameron’s duty in all this is simply to prevent it by sticking whatever body part is needed into the dyke while emergency repairs are made. With nothing to lose, Cameron should not resign but push as far as possible against implementing Article 50 (all 261 words of it) risking a vote of no confidence. Under the circumstances losing a confidence vote is the only acceptable reason for the Camerons to evacuate 10 Downing Street.
The electorate have every reason for being mad at the direction of life under the EU though some of the effects are more closely linked to secular economic fluctuations than bad politics. But the approach is all wrong, it smacks of hyper consumer culture in which fickle consumers ditch perfectly good and useful products in pursuit of the brilliant and coruscating. When did we become a global culture that couldn’t fix anything?
We became that culture when we stopped listening to the other side, when we began demonizing them in quasi-religious terms. Can an opponent be truly evil? Perhaps but such designations should be reserved for the few times in a century when a Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin emerges.
The current tiff over the EU more resembles A Swift essay on Lilliputians, Brobdignagians, Houyhnhnms, Big Endians and Little Endians. The Endians are a particularly interesting dichotomy. According to Swift they fought over whether boiled eggs should be broken from the pointed end or the more blunt end first. It was Swift’s way of showing distain for the polarized politics of his day.
I don’t know what to do about this dynamic other than to promote a culture of listening, to talk about the problem and to find common ground if in nothing else than in our universal exhaustion with the bickering.
History does indeed rhyme as Twain observed. Though it never repeats precisely, if you place a large number of humans in relatively similar circumstances you should expect similar results. Consider the American and French Revolutions with their different and for some dire consequences or even Berlin and all of Eastern Europe circa 1989.
A less bloody but instructive example for today comes from America’s first decade. The Articles of Confederation, America’s first governing document, like the Maastricht Treaty, failed to organize a central government that had the power to be, well, a government. There was no national currency, taxes were a hodgepodge in which states tried to gain revenue from outside through tariffs. This zero-sum game was a real drag on trade. There were other deficiencies too, enough to cause regular people to unite in making changes.
The articles were created in November 1777 and remained in effect throughout the Revolution until they were replaced by the federal constitution. In 1786 The Virginia Legislature suggested all states send delegates to a convention in Annapolis, MD to discuss ways to reduce interstate conflict and that was the beginning of the process that led to the constitution.
In the process the delegates determined that a completely new constitution was needed, one with the centralized power to be a government but which still devolved all but essential power back to the people and the states.
We know how the story ends. By 1789 a constitution was in place and a viable number of states had accepted its terms, albeit with ten of the best amendments one could ask for.
My point is simply that the various nations of Europe really do have more in common than not but they need a modus vivendi. Dissolution of the current over-built structure was only a matter of time once the European constitution unraveled in successive votes by the French and the Dutch in 2005. Without a constitution there is little more than a trading block with too much overhead so eliminate it.
Negotiating the UK’s departure (problematic in that Scotland for one is not having it) would look a lot like renegotiating Maastricht anyhow and not a lot different from ditching the Articles for something better.
While some have suggested that the divorce should be made to look as difficult and painful as possible to discourage others from doing the same, we should keep in mind that some and perhaps many on the EU side of the negotiations might have sympathies with the plaintiffs. That said, a negotiated split might begin to look a lot like a renegotiation of the terms of union anyhow.
In my last post I suggested that technology could play a role in smoothing some rough edges. I’d go further now to say that a trading union is all that was initially envisioned and all that’s really needed to help prevent another European war, which people in the middle of the twentieth century wanted desperately. There are trading blocks like NAFTA, and the WTO that reduce barriers to trade without entangling themselves in a new currency, a constitution, or an overbuilt bureaucracy. That seems to be enough. There hasn’t been even a battle between the U.S. and Canada since the Revolution, or with Mexico since 1848 (and there won’t be, Trump willing).
While we’re at it, note the differences between the American Constitution adopted to form “a more perfect union” and the bloated promise of Maastricht’s “ever closer union.” How can any sane person agree to that? Were they not aware of the hyperbole involved? The role of asymptotes in math? Ever closer is quantifiable and so gives free license to bureaucrats whereas more perfect is purely subjective.
If the original premise of a united Europe was that countries that traded together would be hard pressed to take up arms against one another, then let’s have some of that and forget about sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya. That’s Cameron’s brief for now, not this ridiculous slinking off at the first sign of difficulty. David Cameron, you broke it, now you have a moral obligation to fix it. Get going.