The Blog

  • July 5, 2016
  • Unforeseen consequences

    Denis-PombriantThe 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.



    Published: 8 years ago


    • July 5th, 2016 at 3:06 pm    

      Denis – I’m not sure about this notion that “a lot of people didn’t vote”, given the turnout was higher than the last national election. And the notion that the referendum is “non-binding” is a recent invention by pro-EU elected and un-elected officials. I don’t think anyone thought it was non-binding when Cameron first proposed it, or on election day.

      • July 10th, 2016 at 4:32 pm    

        Well, it was non-binding and the UK papers and reports made that point which is what I keyed off.

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