Blog

Decisions, decisions

Published on September 15, 2017

As the summer holiday season ends and things return to normal so the stage is set for party conferences and Saturday night’s entertainment competitions ( X factor and Strictly Come Dancing are under way). Which got me to think about these ritualised tests of politicians, celebrities and wannabes that are now part of everyday life.

Every format – choosing a party leader or competition winner – is slightly different but all seem to acknowledge that there are two aspects required to make good decisions; the experts and the people. There is good precedent for this. SPQR is the acronym of Republican Rome: the senate and the people constitute the state. Simon Cowell and, now, Shirley Ballas, will lead the expert judges. And while there are differences of opinion along the way, and popular favourites such as Ed Balls get more votes than their expertise implies, the eventual winner is generally regarded as worthy.

In politics the decision process, especially for leaders, was rooted in this way but has hit extremes with less highly regarded results: where it’s just the people the winner is Jeremy Corbyn and where it’s just the experts (MPs) it’s Theresa May.

And its low point came with the Brexit referendum where expertise was absent. I realise that there was a campaign and debates were held. But what is strikingly obvious now, if it wasn’t clear then, is that no-one had any idea what they were voting for. There was no expert discussion of the implications for Brexit and there is still very little clarity on what it means. The experts are being consulted now – select committees are being assembled, trade negotiators recruited (albeit the best have yet to be wooed, having turned down what they perceive to be paltry offers). But there is still a significant risk that the decisions, which will not be put to a popular vote, turn out to be what experts perceive to be popular. This is like a company launching a product with no customer research. Whether it’s the Sinclair C5 or the DeLorean gull-wing it is very risky making decisions based on what you think they think.

We work with public sector organisations as well as private, and there are additional considerations in the public sector beyond those of the customer. In seeking popular decisions this is often overlooked. Voters have two economic identities, as consumers and producers. BUT, and it’s a big but, there are more consumers because everyone consumes and not everyone produces. So a popular decision process will always be biased towards the consumers’ benefit.

And there are more citizens who are ruled than there are decision makers who have to allocate resources and make things happen. Again there is a strong urge to satisfy the majority without fully considering the effects of, say, tight immigration and border controls on the decision makers who aim to provide goods and services to the citizens.

The Brexit referendum was like asking you what your favourite colour is. I couldn’t give one answer other than “what is the colour for?” Then I can decide. In other words we use our logical side to clarify the issue and set out the choices. Only then do our intuitions guide us to the choice that feels right.

Good advisors help people to make good choices. Can badly chosen politicians rescue the flawed referendum process and do the same?