Very Human Failures

My work is predicated on the view that corporates should be paying more attention to the human dimension. Within this realm, characterised as it is by subtleties and intangibles, lie as many business risks as the financial, or occupational health and safety.

It is not hard to take the cynic’s view that businesses’ focus on maximising profits means that they will cut corners wherever they can. Or, even if there isn’t outright profit-mongery, that neglect of the human dimension is a consequence of lack of care.

Of course, the opposite of profit is loss. Eventually, loss-making businesses run out of money and go bust. Money is an important signalling mechanism.

However, for all its human failings, one could make the argument that business makes a more reliable contribution to society than government. The primary reasons for this are that businesses can go bust, and they have competitors.

By contrast, politicians (in South Africa at least) seem to suffer no consequences. They can even break the law without losing their positions. In other words, they do not have to concern themselves with the politician’s equivalent of going bust.

Of course, in ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the system worked this way for a while. A powerful person who seemed to be heading in the direction of tyranny could be voted out, Survivor-style. Votes were cast on shards of pottery (ostrakon, from which we get the word ostracise). The practice was stopped when a truly powerful person subverted the system to get rid of an opponent.

Government is (supposed to be) for the people, but there is massive evidence against. One doesn’t need to be a cynic to take the view that the only humans benefitting from government – well, the South African government – are the politicians themselves.

Using the human dimension as benchmark, our government has failed us. One could also use the examples of failed or failing SOEs by way of financial proof of government’s failure. I’m choosing to address this from the human perspective, because even if one is a financially inept manager, one could be guided by basic humanness. Surely?

Maybe not.

Fortunately, there is substantial data that supports this view. This is not conjecture.

Let’s start with schools, specifically the provision of sanitation, which is a legal requirement under the South African Schools Act. While there has been progress, according to there are still 37 schools in the country that have no toilets at all. One-third have pit latrines, which are not only illegal (in terms of the Act), but also dangerous. In recent years, at least two young children have died after falling into pit latrines at schools.

There are a number of safe and hygienic low-tech alternatives that don’t require running water, and yet Angie Motshekga’s promise, to comply with the Act’s basic sanitation requirements by 2016, has not been kept.

It is therefore no surprise that the real purpose of her department’s existence – education – is not delivering on its basic requirement of educating young people so that they do not become trapped in a cycle of poverty. Many studies relating to levels of numeracy and literacy have shown South Africa to be lagging its peers internationally. And this is before we start drilling into the detail of what happens at matric level.

Similar failures characterise other departments that are supposed to be looking out for the most vulnerable members of our society.

Given the scale of corruption in our government it would be easy to put the non-availability of resources for providing essential services down to kleptocracy.

On the other hand, let’s assume that we had good, well-intentioned politicians who were held to account (i.e. there would be consequences resulting from non-performance). A recent study by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team turned the behavioural science spotlight on policymakers.

Real-world data proves policymakers to be as prone to cognitive biases as the citizens whose behaviour they hope to influence. The bottom line is that they may be the cause of failure of their own policies. If ever there was a justification for the view that politicians are far less capable than they think they are (which probably means we have too many of them), and that we give them too much power, this is it.

At least for these reasons, if not the cynical ones as well, our politicians are likely to fall short of the performance required. Add to the picture massive levels of disagreement between political parties, and we’re even less likely to implement effective policy.

Having loud arguments isn’t going to get us closer to solutions. Far better to use evidence by way of arbitration. Even in a situation where everyone agrees (and where everyone is honest), randomised trials are an invaluable method for determining the most effective course of action.

Billions of aid dollars are spent in the developing world every year, much of it directed by respected practioners and academics. Even they don’t know which programmes will work. Famously, Michael Kremer and Ted Miguel showed that cheap, school-based deworming in Kenya was far more effective at achieving educational outcomes than any other intervention. One of these, at great cost, provided schools with learning aids, and yet this was less effective than a simple pill.

There is a risk – an understandable one – that policymakers feel the need to write complex specs for their programmes, if only to protect themselves from scrutiny. Imagine if the relevant education authorities in Kenya had written a one-paragraph policy that they would deworm every child at school, and thereby produce a measurable increase not just in school attendance, but also academic results, and earning potential when those kids are adults. It wouldn’t get taken nearly as seriously as a weighty document that proposed the spending of large amounts of money. Dare I add that an international consulting firm should also be involved in its drafting?

Having invested so much in the policy, the likelihood of them modiying implementation based upon feedback (or even allowing for feedback) is highly unlikely.

Most often, the simple solutions are found by trying a bunch of different things, preferably with government staying out of the way. In the time it takes to spend months (if not years) fighting over something in Parliament, one could have trialled several different options.

Without getting into a debate whether it’s more effectively outsourced (i.e. privatised), part of the reason for government’s existence is to provide basic human needs and rights. Perhaps if politicians felt a closer connection with ‘the people’ they would be more inclined to do the right thing.

Similarly, there is scope for businesses to pay more attention to the human dimension. Even if the founding reasons for their existence relate to the production of profit, eventually the money flows will match the human experience.

For the sake of balance, you could argue that I should be using the human dimension benchmark on business. However, I can’t think of any single business that has the potential to damage the entire country the same way as a state entity in the form of Education, or Health or Eskom. In any case, the market has a straightforward way of dealing with non-performers. They go bust (that’s one of the benefits of capitalism).

Time to focus on the human dimension.


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