The Worm’s-Eye View and Outcome Indifference

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.

10 thoughts on “The Worm’s-Eye View and Outcome Indifference

  1. Rather than exhort people to act like birds instead of worms, I’d ask “how do we either select birds instead of worms into senior positions across government and the bureaucracies” and/or “how do we, at the margin, change the incentives so that people act more like birds than worms?” If it requires people to act in self-sacrificial ways to be a bird rather than a worm, you shouldn’t expect to get many of them. Or, to put it another way, why would a bird try to live and work with worms? Isn’t it more likely to just fly away?

    1. I do agree that systems, structures and incentives are going to be key overall.

      However, for those not in a position to change those structures, it can still be helpful to think in a way that focuses on outcomes.

  2. Your remark “State funding of childcare has dramatically increased since 2010” is misleading. The state is spending more on childcare because they have increased the number of ‘funded hours’ families are entitled to, but this is actually one of the factors that is driving childminders out of the profession. Most of the hours families use are now government-funded, but at an hourly rate which most childminders find unsustainable, so they quit because the finances don’t stack up. I’m acquainted with quite a few childminders and this is their main concern, not regulation. They don’t enjoy the paperwork and Ofsted, so that is undoubtedly a factor, but I don’t think it’s the main one. Changing the ratios while keeping the hourly rates the same would improve the financial situation, but they’d rather care for the current modest number of children while being allowed to charge what they want!

    1. If a trend has been going on fairly steadily for 25+ years, something that happened in the middle of this period is almost certainly not the main cause (it may contribute). The childminders still in the profession now are also not representative of the many who left. Here’s some research by Coram based on exit interviews pointing to bureaucracy, lack of flexibility and Ofsted as the principle cause:

      On ratios it’s worth noting that if ratios were loosened, there would be nothing to stop childminders who wished to take the same number of children as now, either a premium service (like private schools) or accepting lower margins. But others could choose differently.

      Would you consider ‘government funding of healthcase increased significantly after the founding of the NHS’ to be a misleading statement? Your acquaintances are absolutely allowed to care for the current modest number of children and charge what they want – this is not forbidden, any more than private schools or private healthcare are forbidden, and I know of some nurseries that do this (and don’t take the government money). I suspect they also can’t find people willing to pay this – so what you actually mean is ‘they’d rather care for the current modest number of children while having the taxpayer pay them what they want’!

      1. The report you’ve shared is an interview with 16 former childminders in London. Given the low sample size they report no quantative results, but do find paperwork and Ofsted to be problems.
        The report includes a graph of childminders in England showing the decline from 1996 to 2017. 30 hours free childcare was introduced in September 2017. Based on this I cannot see how you are dismissing Susie’s suggestion on the basis of this report.

        Given you’re right wing I’m also surprised you’re not sympathetic to the perspective that
        1. Price matters a lot
        2. Replacing a market with government fiat has downsides
        I’m also surprised that you’ve dismissed ‘government charges massive taxes, then provides vast majority of funding in this sector’ with ‘well people could still go private if they wanted!’ They could, but on account of things like the massive taxes they find it unafforable to chuck the government funding!

        1. There are two separate issues here.

          On the first, if I describe a phenomenon that’s been ongoing for 25 years, it’s reasonable to dismiss something that happened 6 years ago as the principal cause (I acknowledged it may contribute).

          On the second, there are many downsides to quasi-nationalising the industry, but none of them justify keeping ratios. If ‘price matters’ (and I agree it does), the only ways for childminders to get more money is either for ratios to increase, for them to be offering a service that individuals are willing to pay more for, or for taxpayers to be made to pay more.

          1. Everyone (in this thread) is agreeing that childminding has issues which at least include Ofsted/paperwork, and have been causing child minders to leave the industry since the 90s. Susie asserts that now there is an even more significant pressure which has arisen after 2017, causing more of them to leave. If this is true we ought to see the graph bend some time since 2017. Arguing against this by pointing to a graph which ends at 2017 isn’t very convincing!

            I agree that ratios are stupid, and don’t really get what Susie is driving at there. Your ‘entitled childminder’ theory seems as good a guess as any for that dynamic. However, I don’t believe the government has relaxed ratios, so that isn’t relieving the pressure. (I could be wrong on this, they keep trying to confuse me by announcing things, and then doing nothing.)

            My interpretation is that the government announced a giveaway they couldn’t afford, and are now damaging the industry because that’s easier than admiting they’ve committed to something unsustainable. I am biased on this – I hated the 30 hours free child care policy to the extent that it not being in the Tories manifesto was a key reason to vote for them.

  3. “A Minister will face endless, relentless, from lobby groups and the media, for trying to reform the process (and, it is worth saying, will the civil servants tasked with implementing for it)” should probably read:
    A Minister will face endless, relentless [pressure] 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 /for/ it)
    [] for add, // for remove.

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