Why is everything broken? Why does it take 12 years to build an offshore wind-farm, despite sky-rocketing energy prices and cross-party consensus that we need more? Why are we tolerating massive criminal court back-logs? Or the fact that 80% of childminders have left the profession since the 1990s, even though many families are struggling to pay for childcare? Why does it supposedly take twenty years to build a reservoir(1), when China built the Three Gorges Dam in 17?
There’s one school of thought that puts this all down to ‘Tory austerity’. But while the Conservatives clearly must shoulder some responsibility as the party in power since 2010, to blame it all on funding cuts simply doesn’t stack up(2). Many public services – such as the NHS or schools – have seen funding increased or maintained in real terms. State funding of childcare has dramatically increased since 2010. And other areas, such as building offshore windfarms, the issues causing the delays aren’t anything to do with funding.
Even if you do think more investment would help, with tax at its highest percentage of GDP since the ’50s and debt at 100% of GDP, it’s clear that money is going to be hard to find. Starmer and Reeves both know this, which is why they’ve been quietly ditching or rowing back on most of their more expensive promises, such as abolishing tuition fees or spending £28bn a year on green investment. It’s going to take more than money to solve our problems.
In this post we’ll be looking at how one of the biggest reasons for these is that we’ve adopted a ‘worm’s-eye view’, where we care far more about the processes that lead to an outcome, than about the actual outcome itself. We’ll also look at the role of experts and insiders in this phenomenon – and consider some ways in which we could break out of it to actually get stuff done.
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Inside View and Outside View
When trying to make a prediction about something, there are two main ways of doing so. Under the Inside View, one attempts to understand as many details as one can about the situation and so to arrive at the best available estimate. In contract, using the Outside View, one considers comparable scenarios to arrive at an estimate.
For example, imagine you are planning to get your kitchen remodelled. Under the Inside View you would carefully consider all the different parts of this task, from choosing a tradesperson, ordering material and then how long each different part of the job would take to estimate how long it would take and how long it would cost. On the other hand, using the Outside View, you might say, ‘I have five friends who’ve had their kitchens remodelled recently, and they all took between 6 and 12 months and cost between £12k and £25k – so I estimate mine will take 9 months and about £18-19k’.
It’s important to emphasise that these are not mutually exclusive lenses – indeed, typically one might use a combination of both to get the most accurate estimate. The advantage of Inside View is that it can, in principle, be more accurate: only by looking at your own specific scenario can you assess the specific facts that may determine the outcome (maybe you have a larger kitchen than all your friends. Or you want a special obsidian counter top which needs to be shipped from Hawaii at great expense). At its extreme, the Outside View can become a Heuristic That Almost Always Works (except when it actually matters).
On the other hand, although in theory it is more accurate, it’s also more prone to major errors. We can all imagine someone who maps out a detailed scenario for who long each task theoretically should take – but ignores the fact that tradespeople frequently overrun or cancel, and so believes they can get the kitchen done in six weeks. The Outside View avoids this: if everyone you know took at least six months to remodel their kitchen, it seems unlikely you can do yours in 6 weeks – or at least, if you do believe that, you’d better have some specific and exceptional reason to believe your case is different.
Inside View and Outside View can be used to assess any particular situation. What’s the likelihood that a scandal about a politician will lead to their resignation? Is a border clash between India and Pakistan likely to lead to war? How about nuclear war? Will a team that’s 2-0 up at half time go on to win the match? In all cases, a mix of the two tends to be better than relying on one alone.
Bird’s-Eye and Worm’s-Eye Views
While Inside and Outside Views are typically used for forecasting, there’s a related dichotonomy in terms of how we consider public policy questions – one which I’m going to refer to as the Bird’s-Eye and Worm’s-Eye views.
From the Worm’s-Eye view, we look at the problem from the inside: we map out all the things we want to happen before we build a windfarm, for example, or all the checks and procedures we want for childminders before we’ll allow parents to use them. If something seems worthwhile, we’ll put it in; if it doesn’t, we won’t. Perhaps, after a crisis, or a news story, we’ll decide that some new process is needed, and so we’ll include it. We’ll work closely with all the people who know the system best – everyone who has an interest in the system – and make the best judgement at every step in the way.
And we end up with it taking 12 years to build a windfarm or 80% of childminders leaving the profession.
The trouble is, in the Worm’s-Eye view, it’s all too easy to add another process, another gateway or another requirement. After all, it’s only a very small thing – and it’s for a good reason, after all. Surely it’s worth requiring just one more form if that, somewhere, stops a child getting injured. It sometimes seems that the people who know the system best are most inclined to want to add in additional measures – certainly, in the recent parliamentary inquiry into childcare, those in the sector tended to be least willing to contemplate any reduction in regulation. We can see this even more clearly in the US, where the different regulations between different states help to show how absurd it is that, until earlier this month, self-service petrol stations were banned in Oregon. But propose lifting it and you’ll be met with an outcry – even though most of the rest of the world gets by without it. This is one of the reasons why ‘red tape challenges’ tend to founder: there just aren’t that many actually pointless regulations around – they’re all there for a reason – and the challenges tend to end up, at a granular level, with those close to each issue desperately arguing why the sky would fall if it would remove. I’ve seen it many times in the civil service, and outside.
But while there aren’t many actively absurd regulations or processes, there are many that are there net negative.
A further way in which Worm’s-Eye view can fail is in failing to avoid Tragedy of the Commons situations. One can argue legitimately that the court backlog is different from the failure to build wind farms: with the wind farms, the consultation and impact assessments are tangential to the outcome (or at least are serving a different outcome); on the other hand, in the criminal justice system, ensuring we get a fair trial is fundamental to the process. This is of course true, but a system where cases can take months or years falls prey to the Tragedy of the Commons. It is clearly in every individual accused individual’s interest to present as much evidence as possible, to cross-examine as much as possible and (in some cases) to use every technique possible to prolong the process if that will gain them an advantage. But if everyone does this, we end up with it taking excessively long for cases to come to trial – which is not in anyone’s interest.
From a Bird’s Eye view, we take the opposite perspective. We step back and say that climate change is the biggest challenge facing the planet, and we’re not going to tolerate a planning system where it takes longer to get permission for a wind farm than it does to build it. Or we say that if the current system of regulating childminders has seen 80% leave, it must be faulty and it needs to be reformed. Or that justice delayed is justice denied, and that keeping accused waiting two years for a trial is unconscionable – and reform the system to match.
Bird’s eye can also help us get a better handle on whether particular rules are necessary. The best argument for why it’s safe to fill your own car with petrol in Oregon doesn’t result from a detailed cost-benefit analysis done in Oregon, but in looking at the 48 states which allow you to do so and observing that they seem to be getting on just fine. A few months ago, when giving evidence to the aforementioned Parliamentary Inquiry on childcare, one of the other witnesses strongly criticised me for suggesting that the staff:child ratios could be relaxed, saying how terrible this would be. This is the immediate response from most people who consider it (including the public) in Worm’s-Eye mode: who doesn’t like small class sizes? Later in the in the session, however, that same person praised the Canadian system overall as a model for the UK to emulate. I also like the Canadian system – and its ratios are significantly looser than ours. Indeed, most of Europe has significantly more relaxed ratios than we do.
An alternative way of looking at our societal preference for Worm’s-Eye over Bird’s Eye view is that it is a form of outcome insensitivity. We care more about not removing any given piece of regulation on childminders, or on delivering the current criminal court process, or on insisting on every bit of consultation, environmental impact assessment and judicial review than we do about whether childcare is cheap and available, justice is quick or wind farms actually get built (and energy prices come down).
What does it mean to say ‘we care more about process than outcomes’? Clearly, on one level, as individuals, we don’t: most people in the country care more about the price they pay for energy than the intricacies of the planning process. But the system as a whole is outcome insensitive – in terms of what the media reports on, what special interests will lobby and engage on and what officials will try to protect and be held accountable for if something goes wrong. It’s well-known in international trade that if benefits are diffuse but costs are concentrated, a bapolicy can continue for a long time, even if the benefits greatly outweigh the costs – which is why it can be so difficult to remove tariffs on some industries.
A Minister will face endless, relentless, opposition from lobby groups and the media for trying to reform the process (and, it is worth saying, so will the civil servants tasked with implementing it). Both sides may ultimately be worn down to a compromise – and, of course, will be aware that if the reform does go through and something bad happens that can be blamed on it, they’ll be crucified in the court of public opinion, with obvious consequences for their career. In contrast, if the price of energy, or housing, or childcare keeps going up, or court backlogs, or asylum backlogs, or waiting lists keep getting longer – well, that’s no-one’s fault really, is it?(3)
So how, practically, do we implement the Bird’s-Eye view? It’s all very well to say the planning period should be shorter, but how to do that? I’ve been quite negative about experts so far, but here’s where we need to trust them – but within clearly tasked parameters.
I don’t personally know which bits of the planning process for Offshore Wind should be cut (though there is a good proposal here), but if you got the experts together and told them to come up with the best possible process that took no more than 3 years, they’d no doubt do a good job. But that outcome – no more than 3 years – would have to be the immoveable option, the fulcrum around which all else must done. Nothing else will do.
Similarly, the best people to devise the fairest possible criminal justice system that would see every charged person’s trial concluded within three months of being charged – or the asylum backlog fully heard within 6 months – are undoubtedly senior judges. And we know, absolutely, that this is something that could be done. We don’t have to go back to the Bloody Assizes for examples of swift justice: following the London riots in 2011, within three months, of almost 4000 people arrested, 1,984 suspects had faced prosecution with 686 offenders found guilty. We could clear the criminal court backlog if we wanted to. But it will only happen if results are paramount.
Sadly, the political and societal barriers are higher. I have no confidence in bureaucracies or complex ecosystems to prioritise outcomes: from both direct personal experience, inside government, as well as observing the behaviour of large bureaucracies elsewhere, from the EU to the US, such systems are relentlessly Worm-Eyed, always taking the path of safety and of multiplying processes – unless a dedicated and reforming politician sets a different direction. Sadly, most politicians are not filled with this reforming zeal (though both the Blair and Cameron governments contained a higher proportion than most) and, without a clear sense of purpose and high degree of capability, will be worn down by the lobby groups, the media and the voice of the status quo.
We have made things worse, in recent decades, by distributing power ever more widely across regulators, agencies and departments – not, as the Romans did, where each magistrate can use the powers, but all too often where each can act as a blocker or a veto, meaning the number of people needed to marshall for change ever increases. The growing role of judicial review (aided and abetted, it must be said, too often by unclear or inspecific legislation) does not help. And nor does the 24-hour media cycle, now turbo-charged by social media, which makes it ever easier to rally people against any specific reform.
Our best hope is a system which allows committed actors to act – not unfettered, but less fettered than they are today. It is one reason why I support First Past the Post – and one reason why I hope that if Starmer does win the next election, even though I oppose him, I hope he does so with a decent majority, so he actually has a chance of addressing some of the biggest issues the country faces. But more broadly it means, in every area of government, the civil service, looking for ways to increase the incentives and structures to focus on outcomes, not process, and to take the Bird’s-Eye, not the Worm’s-Eye view.
It will not be easy – there are no silver bullets – nor something that is accomplished in years, nor even decades, for it is an endless struggle against the forces of inertia and entropy. And it is for everyone in government, in politics, in the media, the commentariat or public life more broadly to play their role – but it must be done.
Be a bird, not a worm.
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(1) Theoretically. In reality we haven’t built any new reservoirs – or nuclear power stations – in over 30 years.
(2) Court backlogs is perhaps the area where this explanation is most compelling.
(3) One perspective is that our system is keeping people focused on outcomes, because the fact that these outcomes are so bad is one reason why the incumbent government is 20 points behind in the polls. I’m sure that is true, but it doesn’t seem the most effective feedback mechanism. For one thing, most of these problems have been worsening for years – in some cases, decades – and have only started seriously impacting the polls post Partygate, COVID and the Ukraine War. I’m not sure we want to count on such a confluence for our societal feedback mechanism. For another, if Labour does (as is likely) win the next election, they will face the same entrenched opposition to making changes in these areas and, Starmer, notably, is not currently proposing to take specific bold action in these areas, aware as he is of the opposition.