The first German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) once remarked: “The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep”.
How is politics actually planned today?
There is hardly good initial planning followed by creative, timely and critical adjustments. There is frequently a lack of urgency. Problems are described, but options and solutions are almost never seriously developed and worked through. One can call it superficiality and sloppiness. Or ignorance. In any case it is irresponsible.
Another basic problem: Neither the politicians nor the state secretaries are personally liable for their mistakes. Time and again, they find an excuse for their mistakes, are protected by the majority in parliament and the party and benevolent soft-soapers in the media. When things get really bad, the state, i.e. us taxpayers, pay. Why should politicians then plan and decide carefully instead of opportunistically?
Many ordinary citizens believe there are big computers calculating everything in the centres of power, staffs discuss for days, weigh precisely and produce hundreds of pages of good analyses resulting in well thought-out and sophisticated proposals. Unfortunately, the reality is different and shocking, even inflammable.
Four phases can be distinguished in the misguided decision- making processes of democratic governments:
Phase one: In the smallest circle, the famous kitchen cabinet, decisions often concerning crisis management are made with too little knowledge, without thorough controversial discussions or comprehensive analyses. History’s trajectory is thus set according to mood, feeling, prejudices and in superficial discussions. Decision making is too often erratic, chaotic, emotional, strongly driven by (pre-)judgements, ideologies and competence wrangling. Party blinkers. Quickly punched slogans replace self-critical thinking and rational replanning. Expert panels are sometimes convened, but only with those participants who are congenial and largely agreeable to the administration and politicians.
Phase two: Once the Head of Government is in agreement, everyone runs in its direction. Any objection is unwelcomed and considered dangerous for the goodwill of the powerful leadership and one’s own position. Anyone arguing against the leadership’s position is quickly left out in the cold. The respective individual becomes an outsider, is isolated, deported and loses its former position. Supposedly it is about “unity”, but in reality, it is about dogmatism and vanity. Merely the good, beautiful, flattering arguments fitting into the pre- conceived frame of judgement are accepted. Everything else is sorted out. Who is still interested in the truth?
The government’s steamroller continues to move in the same direction, although more and more experts are warning. Blinders are put on. “Now more than ever.” Off to the abyss of misguided planning and deeper and deeper into the swamp, because the President, the Chancellor or the Prime Minister decided so the day before yesterday.
The ancient Romans were already further along than we are today. In the triumphal procession in Rome, the victorious commander, including the emperor, was accompanied by a civil servant who repeatedly shouted “respice post te, hominem te esse memento” to him (“Look behind you, remember that you are only human!”). Such a courageous official is urgently needed in almost all government headquarters today, but nobody wants to hire such an individual. Instead, many yes-sayers.
Phase three: In this stage the decision must be “sold” to the parties and the public. The latter always means: all reasonable counterarguments are suppressed with slogans. Opponents and those doubting the decision are isolated and taken out. Criticism is almost identical with insulting the head of a monarchy. The government is moving further and further away from the democratic ideal. Opposition is considered hostile and annoying.
Commitment to truth is secondary. Instead confirming one’s own position is more important. Worse still: new truths and facts are disturbing factors. Like a Potemkin village, all efforts are directed at building and upholding a beautiful façade. Lies are part of the narrative. Bogusness is what it is called in everyday language. The press spokesmen and ministers merely scatter their views, rewarding journalists with flattering attention and background reports. This largely eliminates criticism from the media, especially in the public bro- adcasters dominated by the parties.
Phase four: When, after many months, the first serious facts, analyses and feasible plans are finally drawn up much too late and problems in implementation become obvious, the political decisions have already been taken setting the wrong course. Mistakes are obvious and the emperor is suddenly without clothes. The house of cards collapses but is still defended like a fortress. Now facts other than toxicity are swept under the carpet and suggestions for improvement are dismissed as irrelevant. There is no need for more substantive information and knowledge. What counts are the facts confirming what was previously decided without sufficient analysis. Politicians are now turning a blind eye to the facts. Hardly anyone in their ruling party dares to question the responsible decision makers. The head of government is being told what he or she wants to hear. The pro-government media filter out critical news, reinforce their defensive arguments and manipulate the truth with slanted, jubilant reports.
There is more to it than that: when the facts can no longer be denied because the errors become too obvious, most politicians still stubbornly stick to their wrong course. They are self-indulgent and incapable of learning. That may be understandable in human terms, but it ends up in the quagmire of total political failure.
The result: A four-step death cycle for making the right decisions and thus good policies. Well-meant as the opposite of well-done. Too little for effective crisis management in a democracy. Naive, aloof, ignorant and not a good mix of heart and mind. Not well-balanced Realpolitik, but decision making in a self-absorbed political bubble.
Unfortunately, this type of ad-hoc political decision-making does not constitute an isolated case but is the rule in all democracies. They have forgotten how to analyse, plan and implement properly. Yes, they hate this complicated rational way, because they have to legitimize their decisions democratically.
Instead, fine slogans cover up the lack of substance.
Moreover, too many large-scale projects are planned too superficially and with a lot of wishful thinking. Often, they also take far too long, and the costs explode. This must change urgently, but how?
The parliament often fails to fulfil its supervisory role because the ruling parties support the government, and the opposition is too weak. The courts of auditors always arrive too late resembling a tiger without teeth.
This lack of planning is one of the cardinal errors in today’s traditional politics. It renders politicians untrustworthy. Moreover, it is a major reason for their failure ultimately resulting in many frustrated citizens turning to populist seducers as the “saviours of the people”.
This kind of politics corresponds with an arrogance of power and is a remnant of the ignorance of absolute rulers who supposedly knew everything better than their subjects. A kind of divine grace.
The poisoned ideology of aimlessness and phraseology er- odes the foundations of our democracies like rust. Radically reappraising and changing this dangerous attitude is instrumental if democracy is not to perish.
The successful entrepreneurs of the 21st century plan as far in advance as possible, are open to new facts and change course if necessary and as quickly as possible. Otherwise, they will go bankrupt. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, for example, have turned into huge, flexible, learning and rapidly readjusting corporate players.
Classic politics is miles away from the speed needed in a globalised world. This bad habit weakens democracy and us all. It breeds populism and radicals. The frustration of the masses has a lot to do with it. We urgently need to change this encrusted way of conducting politics. It strangles our democracies in the long term.
In the large book “GOAT – A Tribute to Muhammad Ali” you find the century boxer’s leitmotif: “Float like a Butterfly – Sting like a Bee.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our politicians would also think and win like this: agile like a butterfly and stinging like a bee?
The most important foundation is an open discourse about facts and different options. But the opinion leaders, our political parties, have frozen. They resemble shells without cores. Because it is easier and faster to govern from top to bottom.
The related home-grown threats to democracies have already been outlined above: Lack of discussion, rejection of creativity and a lack of dialogue, too little honesty and humility and the cult of leadership.
Parties do not want critical members, but good and silent party soldiers. Discussions are more like alibi events without substance. Moreover, parliaments are increasingly being disempowered as instruments of loyalty to the leadership. But that is precisely where the critical and lively debates of experts and elected representatives must take place if politics is to become more democratic and better again.
We need a new, fresh policy with the tools of creativity, maximum planning, open discussion, permanent monitoring of success and rapid change.
- Parties and governments need better, open and flexible planning. For every important problem an expert panel voicing different opinions ought to be set up. Their opinions should be transmitted online to all members. A comprehensive concept paper covering all aspects would subsequently be drawn up and put to the vote in the committees. Ten inter- national role models will be sought.
- Good and creative planning must be learned. This would be the task of advanced training courses and academies. The authorities would be best served by modern online learning programmes.
- All promotions are subject to good, creative planning and success.
- Parliament adopts a reform law “Better Policy Through New Thinking”: “For every important decision taken by the government, a comprehensive report with options and concrete proposals for solutions and justifications must first be submitted to parliament. This action report must list all pro and con arguments. Ten experts of each side must be heard. The report must then be published and adopted in parliament.
- A law on “Optimising the Planning of Major Projects” stipulates: All major political projects must be thoroughly examined and presented in a comprehensive feasibility study before a decision is taken by the government. Without solid planning, there will be no funding. It includes objectives, timing, cost models, all pro and con arguments, responsibilities, the regular cost and effectiveness review and the adjustments of plans every two years.
- The responsible politicians listed in the law are liable for compliance for the entire period at the level of Heads of Government, Ministers and State Secretaries, each with an annual salary. Comparable to the boards of directors in public companies. The responsible state or federal audit office can impose large fines each year according to a catalog of punitive measures, the legality of which is finally decided by the state or federal administrative court.
- Following the American model, General Inspectors are appointed in each ministry. They are selected by parliament and check compliance with the laws, how taxpayers’ money is being used and suggest creative solutions. At the same time, every employee can turn to them for confidential advice in case of complaints and abuse.