Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Catch 22 revisited

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 2, 2009

I’ve just, thanks to a very bad cold that’s keeping me awake, posted this to Whitehall Webby Jeremy Gould’s blog.  A couple of references for those who follow the link from the comment.

I suggested that working for government is a Catch 22.  Many of those who (like me) join the civil service eventually end up feeling, like Yossarianm that, in the interests of their sanity, they have to leave.  Thankfully, unlike the US Army Airforce in time of war, people like Jeremy and me have the option of leaving – Yossarian had to stay due to the legally enforcible strange loop that is Catch 22.

I also suggested in my comment that politicans – and their closest civil servants – live in a never land in which things are never as bad as people say they are and there’s never a problem/issue/challenge for which they don’t already have a ready solution.  As our friend Kotter points out, both of these viewpoints are a recipe f0r disaster.

I may well be wrong, of course: if so, all comments welcome!

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4 Responses to “Catch 22 revisited”

  1. I am one of those who followed the link from the comment, and am glad I did.

    Not sure about the Catch 22 analogy. We all know before entering the civil service what it will be like – and that change will come slowly. In Jeremy’s case, he has realised he can probably change it quicker from without than within. Gamekeeper turned poacher maybe?

    Agree completely about the absurdity of pretending everything’s under control and running to plan. I blame the traditional news media largely, for reporting any kind of hesitation or uncertainty as a U-turn or weakness. Something has to give: either the world has to embrace the validity of those in charge not knowing the answer, or politicians (big P and small p) need to stop caring what the traditional media says and be brave about opening themselves up more.

    • I agree that the Catch 22 analogy is a bit dodgy. But it’s worth noting that the novel included a number of variations on the ‘you have to be insane to ask to be discharged on the grounds of insanity, but if you ask to be discharged you can’t be insane’ catch.

      Anyway, I guess what I was trying to say is that there’s something wrong with a system which you have to leave if you really want to improve it.

      I don’t want to get into knocking our civil service: there’s a lot that’s good about it. But I do feel that the ‘let’s pretend’ mentality is even worse now than it was when I resigned, way back in the last century.

      There are some real systemic/logical problems here. If you want to govern you have to win support from the electorate and if you want to do that you must keep the press on side and that reduces your ability to govern effectively.

      I guess the attempts to set up citizen juries were aimed at sidestepping the media. They haven’t really worked – probably because they became victims of spin themselves – but I feel that attempting to engage the public in thinking properly about the problems which face us is the only way out of this particular vicious cycle. In other words, we really do need to tap into the cognitive surplus.

  2. Steph said

    I think Neil’s right in his points above – plus there’s the issue that virtually all large corporate organisations are nervous and often rather hamfisted in their adoption of new online approaches. This is particularly true of Government, as the largest corporate organisation around and more open than most to public scrutiny. But it’s right too that’s it’s very easy to write cheap and mainly inconsequential media stories about online ‘flops’, embarrassing individual social network profiles and so on and crowd out the opportunity to take some risks. What’s struck me in my time inside government is the sheer number of overlapping and stringent demands the system places on things – it really is the case that an ‘elephant is a mouse built to government specifications’. It’s writing and arguing the business case, impact assessment, impact on equality, procurement process, submissions, policy cross-linkages and so on which really risk killing the opportunity to try risky new tools and approaches which might just work.

    But it’s not all bad. There’s a lot of willingness amongst ministers and senior officials to try new things in government at the moment, lots of explicit support for using social media more, and many quite ‘normal’ civil servants who are passionate, creative and flexible, and some fantastic source material for social media work.

  3. […] skills he’s got now, he can bring about change more effectively from the outside. I commented here to this effect, and Simon says something […]

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