Good money after bad: six reasons why governments ignore evidence of service failure — and how to do better

By David Donaldson

Thursday October 24, 2019

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There are some pretty fundamental reasons why governments continue spending money on poorly performing programs, explains Department of Jobs, Precincts, and Regions deputy secretary David Clements. But he also has advice on how to make change in complex systems.

Evidence-based policy is the commonly stated ideal of government, though of course the real world is much more complicated.

Unfortunately, in practice, “evidence is sort of important but not really”, as was observed, somewhat facetiously, by David Clements, deputy secretary inclusion at Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts, and Regions.

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David Clements

Clements has spent plenty of time considering the challenge of change inside government, having previously held the positions of deputy secretary for service delivery reform at the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and deputy secretary organisational redesign at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“When faced with failure, why do we persist with what we’ve been doing?” Clements pondered at the Power to Persuade symposium in Melbourne earlier this month.

“With evidence, we often talk about compelling someone to do something new. That’s a massive part of it, but also why don’t we use evidence to stop doing what we’ve been doing? I feel like we don’t do that often enough.”

The barriers to reform

Considering how and why failing systems continue, Clements presented his ‘ignoring evidence 101’ guide.

The first driver is self-interest. Machiavelli recognised the power of self-interest in stifling reform in The Prince:

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Or to quote the late NSW premier Jack Lang:

“In the race of life, always back self-interest; at least you know it’s trying.”

As humans we’re all self-interested, says Clements. “Shifting from a system — even one that’s failing — is so hard because the people who are succeeding in that system perhaps don’t quite see it.”

The second barrier is confirmation bias. Our default approach is to convince ourselves our prior beliefs are correct, notes Clements.

“How easy it is to cherry-pick evidence — you just look for the thing that shows you’re on the right track.”

Then there’s the issue of reform shoring up the status quo.

“Over time — I’ve worked for a long time in the public sector — increasingly I see reform used to mean quite significant change, and now to me it seems like yes we’re going to reform something and what we end up doing is tweaking something around the edges, or investing more in it.

“It’s almost like that’s become an acceptable word substitution game. Reform is tweaking the same thing. It’s not really a fundamental change.”

There’s also the ‘best of a bad lot’ syndrome. Even if your program has objectively very poor outcomes, you’ll always be able to find another jurisdiction that’s worse.

“As long as we’re doing better than NSW, or Queensland. And if I was in WA, as long as we’re doing better than South Australia, everything’s alright, we must be on the right track. And there’s always someone you’re better than.

Familiarity with failure. “We kind of get close to our failures, we kind of love them. They’re a failure but they’re our failure,” says Clements.

“It’s easier to live with something that you know is a failure than to try something new that might be a failure. If you’re stewarding something you know is a failure, you’re just one of a gang of people who’ve been doing this for years. You try to introduce something new that doesn’t work, things change. And particularly in the world that I work in, there’s no such thing as a sure bet. Everything’s about context. Everything’s about place, or cohort, or people, or time. It’s really difficult, the familiarity with failure.”

The last one is escalation. You’re on a reform path but it’s not working — but you know you’re right. So what do you do? Double down. Clements cites The Systems Bible by John Gall:

“Failure of reform efforts to produce the desired effect leads to various types of delusionary behaviour. Most commonly, failure is ascribed to a lack of vigour in carrying out the reform — ie. the failure is due to too little, too late of the erroneous remedy.

“The corrective prescription is therefore more of the same. Each new catastrophe is no longer a signal that the policy isn’t working, rather it becomes the occasion for a redoubled vigour in the application of the failing remedy. The solutions become part of the problem.”

Quoting Gall, he adds:

“If things seem to be getting worse even faster than usual, consider that the remedy may be at fault. Escalating the wrong solution does not improve the outcome.”

How to fix a failed system

Despite the barriers to evidence-based reform, Clements is no cynic. He offered tips on how to address some of these problems, keeping in mind the difficulty of changing complex systems.

His first piece of advice is to read The Systems BibleHe wishes he’d read it 20 years ago. “I think I would have been a bit better informed about the perils of working in systems and trying to change systems.”

Point two is never create a new system to solve the problem, he says.

“Because managing the system becomes the problem. And I think anyone who’s been involved in a system that has been created to solve problem X realises that you soon spend most of your time on the system, not the problem.”

Never try to reform an entire system.

“It’s going to push back and you will fail, because systems protect themselves and can’t really be killed once they’re created,” Clements explains.

“Instead you’ve got to find the things the system does do well, and every system does some things well, and you’ve got to nurture those things. Take the barriers away from them, grow them, work on them. Don’t try to wholesale change the whole thing.”

Focus on local, place-based solutions as much as possible, and never over-prescribe. “Loose solutions work better,” he says — whereas rigid ones tend to limit capacity for innovation and success.

His final message is to persist with the evidence — but be realistic.

“Evidence actually still is important– we should never abandon it, we should continue to look for it — but don’t get your hopes up.”

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