Sunday 17 May 2020

Modelling Government Failure

I've just been watching Andrew Marr's interview with Michael Gove. It's easy to criticise the obvious, but it is much harder to ask scientific questions as to the underlying reasons for what is patently a collapse in the effective functioning of the institution of government. Government has spent so long modelling the dynamics of a virus that nobody fully understands, and making policy decisions on the back of the fairy-stories which emerged from red and green dots on a screen, that they failed to ask questions about themselves.  But in the final analysis, and in the light of international comparison, the story will be that the horrifying death toll was caused by government failure. It's little consolation that Johnson, Gove, Vallance, Cummings and co will be seen as tragically lethal lunatics to future historians.

Systems collapse when they are overwhelmed by complexity. Another way of thinking about complexity is to consider that it is the aggregate of the variety of different problems that must be managed: "variety" is sometimes used as a unit of complexity.

In asking about government failure, we should consider the mechanisms which produce the variety that the system cannot absorb. What COVID-19 actually did was increase the variety in the natural environment of society in a way which meant that existing structures of social organisation are no longer viable. Therefore, the thing that has to change is the organisation of society to something which is viable under the new conditions. Understanding and acknowledging the potential of the threat to the social environment so that there is readiness to drastically restructure society will obviously be the best way to absorb this kind of shock. It is not surprising that those countries who had recent experience with epidemics like SARS were well-equipped to change their social structures. But the first question to ask of the UK is, despite the "world-leading" research in public health, and ample work on the risks of a pandemic, nothing existed in the mechanism of government to enact a radical social reorganisation in a timely fashion.

It seems that many of the mechanisms that might have permitted this were dismantled for short-term economic reasons in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

But this only explains the delays in acting. It doesn't explain the further chaos that has ensued, and which still appears to be apparent in government actions. Understanding that can shed more light on the lack of foresight in the beginning.

One of the most interesting phenomena from both the UK and the US has been the "daily government briefings". It's been more obvious in the US than the UK, but these have effectively been vehicles for government propaganda, reinforced by many media outlets with close ties to government. This info-war is at the root of government failure. It's basically the equivalent of the ENRON shareholder meetings where everyone is told "We're doing great!" when the opposite is happening. The financial crash of 2008 resulted from similar mechanisms of misplaced trust and political expediency.

The fundamental role of government is to maintain the viability of society. In order to maintain viability one has to understand the nature of the complexity that has to be managed, where it comes from, and what one must do to adapt so that it can be effectively absorbed by the inter-relationships of the government machine. But one has to study complexity to understand it, and particularly to take care that one is monitoring the right signals. All complex systems produce a vast array of different signals - think about how a heart condition might lead one to think that one has indigestion. If we track the wrong signals, we will reach the wrong conclusion.  If we act on the conclusions we reach from tracking the wrong signals, we are likely to make things worse. This is what's happened to the UK government.

So the question is "How has the government tracked the wrong signals, and how has its capacity to recognise its errors been compromised?"

I suspect there's an uncomfortable narrative that joins up a lot of the pathologies of the current UK government and its predecessors. It was the Blair government that discovered the power of managing the information flows from government to the people. By exploiting technology, governments realised they could use sophisticated techniques for making themselves look good, and remain electable. It is noteworthy that the Labour government was brought down by another environmental disaster in the financial crisis which arose because the same approaches had been used in the relationship between banks, investors and governments.

The Brexit campaign and the last two elections were the high watermark in the info-war, where not only UK actors like Dominic Cummings, Cambridge Analytica, etc were monitoring the infostreams, but mischievous foreign actors were in the mix too. The message was clear: manipulate the message and you'll stay in power (and you may get very rich). The underlying message to that was that it was the infostream which was the signal from which to monitor the health of the nation. It is the wrong signal.

So what happens when you monitor the wrong signal? You believe you have indigestion when you are about to have a heart attack. So you act to control the signal, and you make the problem worse.

The outward manifestion of this is the "announcement of progress". Every day, the government briefing has been full of initiatives: locking down, producing ventilators, financial support, ordering PPE, rates of testing, vaccines, bleach, international comparisons ("ooh we're better than x" - until we're not), opening schools, the app, the Isle of Wight, sunbathing, and so on. Whilst not wanting to draw attention away from the substance of some of these (like the lockdown or the financial support), each is an attempt to control the information stream. But it's chaos because the PPE doesn't arrive, the testing falls below target, the international comparisons don't work any more, and the app almost certainly won't work. But they knew these were likely risks before they made the announcement - so the announcement could only have been made in a desperate attempt to control the information stream, and maintain a sense that "We're doing great!" in the face of obviously contradictory evidence. The result is that the thing they wish to control - the information stream - actually becomes more complex to manage. It's positive feedback - the root of all system failure.

What this points to is a fundamental lack of variety and intellectual capacity at the heart of the government operation. It's pretty much what was said in a powerful article in BMJ last week (, criticising the constitution of the SAGE committee and the government's chief scientific advisers. There was nobody to say "You're monitoring the wrong signals" because "monitoring the wrong signals" is not a thinkable thought in a government whose main objective is to stay in power by manipulating the information flows between itself and the public. Government has effectively become a toxic monoculture.

What is actually needed right now is a restructuring of government. But it is very hard to see how this might happen. The monoculture is feeding itself, and many more thousands of people are going to die. The long term damage to the UK is going to be disastrous. In particular, the loss of so-called "soft power" (a deeper facet of information management) will have a huge cost on all our institutions - particularly universities.

So what is going to happen? A government machine hell-bent on its own survival at all costs, for which it sees the management of information as the principal guide to its success, will tie itself into increasingly complex knots. Its attempts to manage information will drive it to hide inconvenient figures, in the same way that we see in other countries. It will invent legalistic ruses to force people back to work in dangerous situations, and it may begin to prosecute those who oppose it. But at some point it will all snap.

Coronavirus has drastically changed our environment. But it is not the crisis. The real crisis is the systemic collapse of government.

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