Tag Archives: Politics

Policy and failure: learning from Copenhagen

20 Bonus 2 MW wind turbines at the Middelgrund...
fanning the ineffectiveness of Copenhagen

The whatever they are called talks in Copenhagen on climate demonstrate the broken nature of our approach to achieving consensus amongst a diversity of nations, views, and wishes. The circus will soon close and we may have very little to show for it, despite everyone’s hopes and wishes. A room with THAT many people in it could hardly agree what to put on a pizza, let alone work through a complex drafting of such an important document.

A few points are worth noting:

  1. Trying to achieve an agreement by having the negotiations stretch throughout the night, so no one gets any sleep is bull-headed, and is hardly evidence of clear and coherent thoughts at 3 in the morning.  Early morning tweets from politicians who have stayed up all night just adds to the impression that these people don’t know what they are doing.
  2. The notion that the backroom gang do all the heavy lifting and then the leaders swan in to sign the final draft is well-past its sell-by date. Clearly, neither works.

Savvy negotiators know that getting your opponent to go without sleep is one way to ensure both delay and achievement of your objectives. Tiredness doesn’t just kill on the road, but is a well-established brinkmanship tactic. It is particularly helpful when there is a hard deadline, and great expectations of results; the closer to the deadline with a lack of agreement, the more likely sleep will be deprived and decision-making and clear-thinking begin to fail. Better to add days than nights to negotiations, and drop this adolescent behaviour.

Setting expectations high also creates an opportunity for nay-sayers to bargain their way to a lower level of agreement, giving the impression of failure whereas they may actually have found the spot at which agreement is most likely, but having failed to establish a Plan B, meant that it was Plan A or failure. An existence of a Plan B, though, would have infuriated some advocates for agreement, as it would identify prima facie where compromise would be likely.  The problem in part was that compromise is often seen as failure, rather than agreement by other means. Perhaps it is better to under-promise and over-deliver.

The use of backroom staff is important, but it is evident from Copenhagen that a lot of fundamental bluesky disagreements remained and where solutions lay above the pay grades of the staff involved.  Better than leaders learn to do their own work, and have the backroom staff refine the language, than the other way round.

The problem with Copenhagen appears to be faltering over accountability; this is a re-run of the nuclear arms treaties. One could argue that objections may be well-founded, but we haven’t seen the basis for that. Agreements do need mechanisms to ensure they do what they are intended to do, but we don’t have sufficient vocabulary for what we need as in the past, most agreements were either treaties with broadly equal partners (e.g. Treaty of Rome) or were imposed by victors over vanquished (take your pick here). This seems more like a communitarian process, with considerable inequality. Perhaps some lessons from community development models would have been helpful.

Of course, this is all quite apart from whether a deal is pulled out of the hat, and whether it is a deal or just a political fix.

Speaking truth to power

Stained glass window of St. Thomas Becket in C...
Thomas Beckett spoke Truth to Power

Professor David Nutt, chairman of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, is now a former chairman. He has joined by other scientists (2 so far) resigning in protest as the government’s heavy handed dismissal of Professor Nutt.  The minister, Alan Johnson, has said he had ‘lost confidence’ in the scientist for something he wrote in a scientific article.

The thought police are out in force once again.  But more important is the apparent abuse by this government minister of the whole point of advisors.  They must speak truth to power. In the absence of the speaking of truth, we will have self-censorship, political correctness, and general bowing and scraping to the political powers.  What the politicians don’t get, and Alan Johnson in particular, is that a candid and often challenging relationship is part of this delicate balancing of truth and power.

Indeed, there is clear abuse of power in silencing critics. There is a candle that burns in Canterbury Cathedral, testimony to this very issue (referring to St Thomas Beckett).  Truth is the first casualty of ministerial hubris.

In the end, we, that is taxpayers, and the general well-being of society, suffer when ministers can be so cavalier in dismissing people they don’t agree with.

Distinguishing between giving advice based on science, and political commentary is difficult navigation, as both scientists hold political views, which ministers may not like, while ministers may express scientific commentary with little grasp of its meaning.  Both can get it wrong, and much nonsense has come out of the mouths of both scientists and politicians.  But rather than shoot the messenger, politicians need to remember that they are in the main wholly dependent on right-minded scientists for advice, ones who will often hold dissenting views from the ‘spin’ that ministers seek to put on science itself. Einstein and colleagues understood this when they wrote to Roosevelt about atomic energy in 1939. It is worth noting that the US government dragged its feet on this letter until at least 1941, and it was not until 1942 that the Manhatten project began.

It is worth listening, even if you don’t like what you are being told. If scientists and advisors must speak truth to power, so power must listen to truth.

Such is the politician’s duty. Pity such duty is so poorly observed.