The recent government spat over cuts in disability support would be amusing if it wasn’t so serious. We have Ministers appearing in the media, saying things that are completely at odds with colleagues. We have the rapid response of citizens who already feel marginalized, getting government decisions overturned before the ink dries on the page. This Zig Zag decision-making seems more like an episode of Zig & Zag. Is this simply the nature of managing coalition politics in a deep recession? Or is there some ‘spoonful of sugar’, to help the medicine go down? The central question is whether the lessons in managing change at an organization level can be scaled up to deal with a national crisis? As Barack Obama might say, yes they can! We know that there’s intelligent life in Leinster House, but we want to see it demonstrated. Here’s what might happen if you took on the job of being Taoiseach for a day.
Step #1: Ensure Economic Literacy: The first element in the successful management of change is to ensure that people understand why the change needs to happen. What ‘today’ problems are on the radar and need to be tackled? Let’s start with economics. Most people, including those of us who’ve studied the subject, don’t really understand economics. Balance of payments surpluses, full employment, lowering interest rates to stimulate demand, tackling inflation, 120% debt to GDP and so on are complex and confusing topics. Under this heading, the job of government is to make complexity simple. Making the numbers jump out is the best way to clear the fog.
Fog Clearance: So how might the current national finances be communicated? Perhaps something along the following lines…
Oh God! Look at the Current Situation
Q: How much are we spending every year?
A: €49.7 billion.
Q: How much income are we generating in taxation?
A: About €38 billion.
Q: Where do we get the ‘shortfall’?
A: We borrow it from a couple of sources, mainly Europe.
Q: How much does this borrowing cost us?
A: Servicing the national debt will cost circa €7.5 billion in 2012.
Q: That’s a lot of moola!
A: It’s enough to build 10 new children’s hospitals and 250 new schools every single year. It has to stop. Otherwise we are borrowing money for day-to-day expenditure that our great grandchildren will be paying back.
Don’t Spoof: The temptation is sometimes to ‘pretend’ a burning platform exists. In the case of Ireland Inc. the platform really is ablaze. So you just need to tell the unvarnished truth. The political columnist Lars-Erik Nelson described it as follows: “The enemy isn’t conservatism. The enemy isn’t liberalism. The enemy is bullshit.”
Key Point: People can only support what they understand. Just change the billions to thousands and householders can easily relate to this (everybody knows you can’t continue to spend €49,700 while earning €38,000).
Step #2: Communicate with Certainty
Q: How are we going to get out of this mess and move forward?
A: The first step is to stop borrowing money, which just makes the problem worse. Then we should only spend money we generate through sustainable taxation.
Q: But, how do we stop borrowing money if there’s a shortfall?
A: In simple terms we can do three things (a) raise taxes (b) reduce spending (c) a combination of both.
Q: What are you going to do?
A: The plan is to do both. We will widen the taxation base to ensure that everyone contributes on a fair basis. In addition, we will radically reduce government spending. The 3 biggest spending departments are Social Welfare (40%), Health (27%) and Education (27%). The outline plan is as follows… Note to Taoiseach: Insert an easily understood plan here. Keep it simple. Aim for the lowest common denominator. Remember that 5-Point Plan which won the election? That’s the spirit!
Key Point: Make the immediate next steps crystal clear. Demonstrate competence (alternatives considered and why you’ve chosen this particular path). Show conviction; no U-turns. Take a quick look behind you. Make sure all Ministers (both parties) are standing in line.
Key Questions: Have we managed to put together a coherent ‘today we are…’ versus ‘tomorrow we will be…’ plan that’s easy to understand? Have we been ambitious in the change targets chosen? Have we focused on ‘shark’ issues that will make a material difference? (no ‘fishing for minnows’, easy stuff which outwardly looks like progress but is virtually worthless). In managing change, the first cut should be the deepest. Go for it!
Step #3: Market your ideas: Sell, Sell, Sell…
Now, here’s the kicker. The plan outlined above will be full of pain. Reductions in social welfare payments, asking Granny’s to pony up their own bus fare, not paying children’s allowance to Michael O’Leary (and other high net worth individuals), making public sector staff work a 40-hour week and so on. The pain has to be shared across the entire community, no lobby groups digging escape tunnels. But, when the pain is visible, you also need to show the prize, what this will achieve. Like Napoleon said: ‘A Leader is a dealer in hope.’
Q: If we take the medicine prescribed, what will Ireland be like as a place to live?
A: With the 1916 centenary approaching, we have an opportunity to think about the type of society we want to create over the next 100 years. Here’s the highlights. We want to create a society that will be… (insert good stuff in here). Our education system will focus on…. In terms of health we will… (and so on). Goal: Show how the short-term pain is the price we pay to move towards a better tomorrow.
Key Questions: Have you continually tested to see that people have understood the core rationale and the central messages? Keep repeating this stuff until you start to bore yourself with it. Once the core message is understood, people will then need something positive to cling to, a life raft of hope in turbulent waters! They will ask WIFM (“What’s in it for me?”). Can you answer that? It takes time for key messages to sink in. Stay with it.
Summary Points: (a) Clarify the problem (b) Make both the pain and the plan explicit (c) Communicate the prize. That’s what every successful manager does in driving change. That’s what you might do in the role of Taoiseach.
Business as Usual: Now that we have come to the end of that particular fantasy, let’s go back to the reality of announcing individual cuts to expenditure, introducing tax hikes across a variety of seemingly unconnected areas and dealing with interpersonal spats among Ministers jockeying for re-election. A world in which the critics ‘pick off’ individual initiatives as these are announced piecemeal. A world where politicians seem to have learned their trade in the B.O.H.I.C.A School of Management. Are you familiar with it? It stands for Bend Over, Here It Comes Again!
Where would we be without this steady diet of crisis? How else would we feed the media machine? And maintain our cultural reputation as the world greatest cynics (until we emigrate and become positive, powerful players working overseas). Taoiseach, respectfully, we need a Plan B!
PS Lighter Note: Politics Explained…
CHRISTIAN DEMOCRAT: You have two cows. You keep one and give one to your neighbour.
SOCIALIST: You have two cows. The government takes one and gives it to your neighbour.
AMERICAN DEMOCRAT: You have two cows. Your neighbour has none. You feel guilty about being successful. You vote people into office who tax your cows, forcing you to sell one to raise money to pay the tax. The people you voted for then take the tax money and buy a cow and give it to your neighbour. You feel righteous.
AMERICAN REPUBLICAN: You have two cows. Your neighbour has none. So what?
COMMUNIST: You have two cows. The government seizes both and provides you with milk.
FASCIST: You have two cows. The government seizes both and sells you the milk. You join the underground and start a campaign of sabotage (the Freisian Society?).
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