I've just finished reading: If We Can Put a Man on the Moon

Last updated 08:45 09/10/2012

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A quote attributed to Kelsey Grammar's Cheers alter ego, Frasier Crane, in the preface of this book, sums up the difficulties of attempting to institute effective government policy into everyday life.

Crane says: "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put metal in the microwave?"

Why indeed? William Eggers, the elder brother of author Dave Eggers, and a director of Deloiotte's public sector practice, with John O'Leary, an MIT process engineer, present a bi-partisan US approach to identifying great policy well delivered and poor policy that in its implementation, stank.

The book is split into chapters that highlight common errors in designing and implementing government policy - such as complacency and silo thinking - explaining, along the way, how to avoid most pitfalls.

At the end of each chapter, the authors sum up key learnings and places where other recommended reading (books, websites etc.) can be gathered.

O'Leary and Eggers pragmatically describe the development of policy as something of a continuum - from ideas, to policy design through to implementation and results and re-evaluation.

The key stage, the section between design and implementation, is called 'stargate' by the authors; where most policy decisions are made in US politics, in the face of consultation, advocacy, lobbying and good old politicking.

Arguably, the stargate is where good policy gets better, or conversely, becomes compromised and pulled to shreads; and it's also where bad policy gets accepted, thrown out or is simply just tolerated, while better policy is designed to replace it.

Examples of good and bad policy and process are liberally spread throughout the book, just as there are, in some cases at least, famous people - Arnold Schwarznegger (for his attempt to reform California's government) and Mitt Romney (for health care reform in Massachusetts) responsible for them.

However, while most examples are primarily from the US, the inclusion of Ken Livingstone's implementation of congestion charging in the centre of London and Japanese Prime Minister's Junichiro Koizumi's deregulation of the Japanese postal system - both successful due to detailed, clever planning and commitment to rolling out the plan and reviewing as they went - provide a reasonable veneer that this is an international assessment of how to go about getting good policy done.

There's also examples of just how badly some things can go. Even the success of the Apollo space mission is brought down to size by Nasa's extraordinary Challenger and Columbia disasters.

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Both show just how easily even the most detailed campaigns from the most competent of organisations can be derailed by over-confidence and not paying attention at the right places at the most critical of times.

If there's a common theme among the success of good policy well implemented, Eggers and O'Leary highlight the contribution of key bureaucrats that are able to deliver the seemingly impossible.

They single out the improbably named Dwight Ink, for his extraordinary achievements in leading, at the behest of Lyndon Johnson, a major recovery and rebuilding programme in Alaska after a devastating earthquake of 9.2 on the Richter scale in 1964.

Ink was so successful that years later, few people outside of Alaska are aware that it was once victim to one of the world's most devastating earthquakes.

Underlining his longevity, Ink also served with distinction during Ronald Reagan's presidency, appointed by Reagan to develop democratic institutions throughout much of Latin America.

Likewise, Livingstone's masterstroke in his plan to introduce congestion charging in London was to appoint Derek Turner, 'a respected civil servant, but with a hard edge' that Livingstone subsequently described as the "only person brutal enough to drive this (congestion charging) through ... and enough of a workaholic and manic enough to do it".

In contrast though, the authors are not afraid to identify the biggest targets.

In a chapter headed The Overconfidence Trap, the policy behind the Iraq war during George W Bush's presidency was so chaotically orchestrated, in the authors opinion, that they sum up the plan as, 'we would defeat Saddam Hussein's army, be greeted as liberators, and a grateful Iraq would embrace democracy. That was the plan, and there was no Plan B.'

While the examples of good and bad policy are illuminating, it's discussions of how, on the one hand, good government policy is crafted and successfully implemented and, on the other, how to identify bad policy and get rid of it before it does too much damage, that make this book particularly insightful for any policy analyst with an eye for the big picture.

Well worth the read and genuinely entertaining. 

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