Laurent Ledoux's blog

A few general reflections on this particular brain disease affecting some decision-makers in Europe and elsewhere and a practical application on the social mixity decree for the French-speaking schools in Belgium

Having worked for the European Commission and national governments as a consultant, a manager of a ministerial chief of staff, I have sympathy for the idea that one cannot solve political problems as those of a private business.

This should not prevent us however to make a serious analysis of the root causes of particular problems that politicians in Belgium, in Europe or anywhere in the world are supposed to solve.

Unfortunately such root causes analysis is often skipped either by sheer incompetence or by conscious unwillingness to do it. It is indeed often easier for politicians to draw attention away from the real issues and try to “reframe” the problem in other terms, which can be exploited electorally by a particular party or politician. This would not be too bad if the “diversion” would enable to win time or support to address calmly the real issues. But that seldom happens. We are so immersed in the “spectacle society” (so radically denounced by Guy Debord already in 1967) that politicians today are too often more concerned about the way they will announce a new reform, a new decree or law than about the way to implement it and its final impact on society.

In his insightful book about the ministerial function in Belgium (“Le pouvoir enchaîné” which literally means “Chained power”), Alain Eraly has clearly analyzed how and why this happens. We won’t repeat here his arguments but highlight just one: time horizons. It has become a “cliché” to argue that the time horizons of our politicians have become way too short to properly govern or reform our institutions, regulate the economy… The problem is of course much more profound and not limited to politics. In business too, we expect a restructuring, an acquisition to bring quickly, often too quickly results. Even within families we can notice forms of growing impatience, about the speed at which kids are “growing up”, learning… It is as if a powerful force was forcing us to contract time as much as possible, to get what we want as soon as possible…

Benjamin Barber argues in his new intriguing book “Consumed” that our consumerist society invite us all, kid as well as adults, to adopt the attitude of a “kid who wants it all now” and become what is known now as “kidult”. A few years ago, Pascal Bruckner also identified in “La tentation de l’innocence” a similar tendency in our society where the “kid has become king”.

Indeed new technologies and media all invite us to be impatient, to expect to get it all now. And still even if it is sharpened now, as such it is not a new phenomenon. As Vladimir Jankelevitch recalls in one of his lectures, Plato already criticized the propensity of some of his fellows to refuse “intermediaries”, to refuse that some things take time to unfold. More recently, Renaud Camus, gave an uncommon but beautiful definition of culture which, I believe, gives wonderful insights about the importance of the way we appreciate time and refuse or accept its contraction. For Camus, culture is the clear consciousness of the preciosity of time (“la claire conscience de la préciosité du temps”).

More pragmatically, as Peter Senge argued in the “Fifth discipline” in which he exposes some of the laws of “systems thinking”[1], the irony is that often “faster is slower”. By willing to go too fast, to “burn bridges”, we end up making mistakes that eventually slow us down. This seems to be particularly relevant for today’s educational challenge.

We therefore need to find ways to accept to be “slow”, not only because life (or food) tastes better then, but because it also is the best and surest way to be really “fast” in the long run.

These various considerations would undoubtly require a more in-depth analysis and I will come back to them in future articles on this blog.

They should nevertheless led us to consider that the “magical thinking” disease so prominently displayed today by many of our politicians in Belgium, Europe and elsewhere affects most of us too and has deeper roots than just the institutional deficiencies of our complex country and the quality of the people we elect.

Without attempting to devise solutions for this deeper issue at this stage, I have recently published an article which illustrates how “magical thinking” diverts us from the real issues through two examples.

We briefly first consider the way more trainings for civil servants in the Federal Public Administration in Belgium was been presented as an “automatic” solution to increase the public sector’s performance. Accordingly, bonuses were given to civil servants who successfully passed tests after a particular formation. Meanwhile nothing was done to effectively link trainings and performance. As a result, many civil servants favored trainings in domains they already mattered so that they would increase their chances of passing the tests and getting a bonus. As a consequence, more training did not facilitate, as it could if properly designed, change in the administration but “substituted” to change.

Similarly the decree meant to favor social mixity in French-speaking schools is problematic as it fails to recognize that the social mixity issue finds its roots in bigger issues, among which the overall low quality of our school system. This low quality on average hides itself very important variations among schools in terms of the quality of the education they provide. Therefore, social mixity problems cannot be seriously tackled if the causes of the low quality of our school system are not properly addressed. And this is precisely what the current decree fails to do.

By clicking on the words in italic green hereafter, you will find the article in pdf format (in French) as it was published on November 5th 2008 in La Libre Belgique and a word version of the same article.

I only hope that this article and these reflections will help us all to refrain from adopting a “magical thinking” approach to problems but to attack their root causes. Miracle or magical solutions seldom exists in this world. Even in this day and age, slow and hard work often remains the true and indispensable companion of the “out-of-the-box-thinking” necessary to solve complex issues today. Let us pay attention that the much celebrated today “Out-of-the-box-thinking” should not be confused with the much displayed today “magical thinking”.

If you have other concrete examples of “magical thinking” striking decision-makers in other countries than Belgium or at EU-level, please share them with us. Transparency (one of EurActiv and BlogActiv’s motos) and public exposure of the “magical thinking” syndromes are the best way to cure it !

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[1] The 10 laws of « systems thinking » are according to Senge :

1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back

3. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse

4. The easy way out usually leads back in

5. The cure can be worse than the disease

6. Faster is slower

7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space

8. Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious

9. You can have your cake and eat it too – but not at once

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants, it produces a mess

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Comments

  1. Dear M. Ledoux,

    Thank for the article pointing rightly the problem of social mixity in schools to improve the quality of schools. Actually, I think we should first try to improve the quality of education as itsef before putting brillantly forward solutions such as social mixity. However, coming from France, I think social mixity is also an essential value along with meritocraty.

    Could be more concrete in your philosophical advocacy and tell us what are causes of the low quality of our school system and propose eventually a practical (low-budget!) solution?

    Thx

    J-C

    Btw. I would be very interested if you could write an article on the similarities and differences between political and business management.

  2. Speaking as one of the parents who camped out in front of the Jean Absil school in Etterbeek for over two nights, I second your observation that the DWLF (Decree Which Led to the Farce) was a classic example of a failure to use systems thinking.

    The social mixity in that queue was, if anything, less than that which the school has enjoyed in previous years. In other words, because less financially successful families couldn’t simply take time off work to queue, the DWLF actually made the situation worse.

    And now it has been replaced with a lottery system!

    So let me add another law to the above 10, at least when applied to Belgium, along with a Corrollary:
    – Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does
    Corollary: quit complaining. The ones coming after you will suffer even more.

  3. J-C,

    Thanks for your comments. I fully agree with you that we should first improve the education system in order/before to address seriously the issue of social mixity. This is exactly what I tried to argue in my article.

    I don’t claim to be a specialist on how to reform the education system though. I draw my ideas from different sources which might help you to go further.

    1. As I mention in the article, Mc Kinsey has recently published an excellent article on “How the world’s best performing school succeed”. An English and French version are available on the web (www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/socialsector/resources/pdf/How_the_Worlds_Best_Performing.pdf).

    2. My beloved professor and good friend (he facilitated my project to study in Spain and Italy before the Erasmus program started – I will always be grateful to him for these two wonderful years that changed my life), Robert Deschamps, advocates for years changes in the way our education system is managed and financed. As a specialist in budgetary issues, he argues as I do that “much more and better can be achieved with less” in Wallonia & the French-Speaking Community not only regarding the education system but also for other policies. Together with colleagues he has just published 3 new articles on the subjects that you can find on the CERPE website (www.fundp.ac.be/facultes/eco/departements/economie/recherche/centres/cerpe/cahiers/annee%202008). See hereunder for more info.

    3. The parents association ELeVes of which I am a member develops alternative proposals to improve our education system. For more info, please contact Anne François at coordination@eleves.be – “Hotline ELEVes” 0473 351851

    Regarding your request for an article on the similarities and differences of political and business management, this is actually a project which I have been nurturing in my head for years now. But I haven’t had the time so far to fully “spit it out”. I have however taken some steps in that direction already:

    1. The article on “Motivating staff in the public sector” that you can find on this blog.

    2. I have just finalized an article on Human Resources Management in the public sector which will be published in the November edition of “Les Cahiers des Sciences Administratives” (Larcier). My article draw on my own experience but leads to recommendations similar to those advocated by the OECD (Examens de l’OCDE sur la gestion des ressources humaines dans l’administration publique en Belgique (2007) also available in English – can be downloaded from their website for little more than 10 Euro) or by Jean Hindriks of Itinera Institute (www.itinerainstitute.org/fr/bibliotheque/publications-presentations-itinera/_paper/beyond-copernicus-from-confusion-to-consensus-a-roadmap-for-an-better-government/)

    3. Together with some friends (all HR directors in the public sector), we have launched a few years ago an association to promote best practices in HRM in the public sector. For more info, see our website at hrpublic.be

    Finally here are some books I recommend on the subject of reforms in the public sector:

    1. « Le pouvoir enchaîné – Etre ministre en Belgique » by the excellent Alain Eraly

    2. « Démocratie ou particratie » by Alain Eraly, Alain Destexhe & Eric Gillet

    3. « Le pilote et le fonctionnaire » by Michel Damar

    4. Old classics (even if somewhat caricatural) such as « Reinventing governments » by Osborne & Gaebler or “Banishing bureaucracy” by Osborne & Plastrik

    5. Recently discovered, more on how politician “reframe” public issues in the terms that advantages specific social actors (to the expense of more serious solutions – something close to the “magical thinking” I evoke in my article): “The culture of public problems” by Joseph Gusfield.

    Hope this will help.

    Laurent

    Centre de recherches en Economie Régionale et Politique Economique
    Facultés Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix – Namur
    N° 6– Novembre 2008

    Le CERPE publie trois nouveaux cahiers de recherche dans la Série Politique Economique:

    • Cahier 33 – Financement et dépenses d’enseignement et de recherche fondamentale en Belgique : évolutions et comparaisons communautaires
    Nous traitons dans cet article de la question du financement et des dépenses d’enseignement en Communauté française.
    Nous présenterons tout d’abord les principes de financement des Communautés depuis la fédéralisation du pays en 1989, en ce compris le refinancement décidé en 2001.
    Nous examinons ensuite l’évolution des dépenses de la Communauté française, et plus particulièrement de son enseignement, depuis 2001.
    Nous procédons alors à une comparaison de l’évolution des dépenses d’enseignement des Communautés française et flamande par niveau d’enseignement depuis la communautarisation de l’enseignement.
    Enfin, nous comparons pour quelques années récentes, les dépenses publiques d’enseignement et de recherche dans les deux Communautés, en y incluant les dépenses des Communes et des Provinces.

    Auteurs : V. Schmitz et R. Deschamps

    • Cahier 34 – Enseignement francophone. On peut faire mieux, mais comment?
    Les enjeux de l’enseignement sont considérables, tant pour l’épanouissement personnel des jeunes que comme préparation à leur intégration dans la vie en société.
    Au vu d’études internationales, l’enseignement en Communauté française est relativement peu performant. Il est cependant plutôt bien financé, et le taux d’encadrement est élevé dans l’enseignement obligatoire.
    Il importe par conséquent de revoir l’organisation de notre enseignement. Plusieurs pistes sont proposées ici, basées sur quelques principes: évaluation, décloisonnement, liberté et responsabilisation des écoles et des enseignants, responsabilisation des élèves et des parents. La question de la pénurie d’enseignants est aussi abordée, de même que celle de la régionalisation de notre enseignement.

    Auteurs : R. Deschamps

    • Cahier 35 – Comparaisons interrégionale et intercommunautaire des budgets de dépenses 2008 des Entités fédérées
    Ce texte a pour objectif de comparer la structure des dépenses publiques d’un point de vue régional (territorial) et d’un point de vue communautaire (linguistique). En effet, d’une part nous comparons les dépenses (tant régionales que communautaires) qui sont effectuées sur le territoire des Régions flamande, wallonne et bruxelloise. Et d’autre part, nous comparons les dépenses (tant régionales que communautaires) réalisées par les néerlandophones et les francophones. A partir des budgets initiaux de 2008, nous souhaitons mettre ainsi en évidence les priorités implicites des choix budgétaires, les points communs et les divergences dans l’affectation des masses financières, d’une part en fonction de la localisation des dépenses et d’autre part en fonction de l’appartenance linguistique.
    Les principaux enseignements de ces comparaisons sont présentés dans la conclusion. Nous y commentons notamment les choix budgétaires réalisés à la lumière de leur impact potentiel sur la croissance et l’emploi.

    Auteurs : J. Dubois, C. Janssens, V. Schmitz et R. Deschamps

    Nous contacter

    CERPE
    Centre de recherches en Economie Regionale et Politique Economique
    8 Rue Rempart de la Vierge, 5000 Namur
    cerpe@fundp.ac.be
    http://www.fundp.ac.be/cerpe

  4. Mathew,

    Thanks for your additional law of system thinking. Excellent !

    If you like paradoxes in management, read Richard Farson’s “management of the absurd”. He’s too much ! Such a delight to read him.

    Here are his “laws”:

    – Different Way of Thinking
    1 The Opposite of a Profound Truth Is Also True
    2 Nothing is as Invisible as the Obvious

    – The “Technology” of Human Relations
    3 The More Important a Relationship, the Less Skill Matters
    4 Once You Find a Management Technique that Works, Give it Up
    5 Effective Managers Are Not in Control
    6 Most Problems That People Have Are Not Problems
    7 Technology Creates the Opposite of Its Intended Purpose
    8 We Think We Invent Technology, but Technology Also Invents Us

    – The Paradoxes of Communication
    9 The More We Communicate, the Less We Communicate
    10 In Communication, Form is More Important than Content
    11 Listening is More Difficult than Talking
    12 Praising People Does Not Motivate Them

    – The Politics of Management
    13 Every Act Is a Political Act
    14 The Best Resource for the Solution of Any Problem is the Person or Group That Presents the Problem

    – Organizational Predicaments
    15 Organizations That Need Help Most Will Benefit from It Least
    16 Individuals Are Almost Indestructible, but Organizations Are Very Fragile
    17 The Better Things Are, the Worse They Feel

    – Dilemmas of Change
    18 We Think We Want Creativity or Change, but We Really Don’t
    19 We Want for Ourselves Not What We Are Missing, but More of What We Already Have
    20 Big Changes Are Easier to Make Than Small Ones
    21 We Learn Not from Our Failures, but from Our Successes — and the Failures of Others
    22 Everything We Try Works, and Nothing Works
    23 Planning Is an Ineffective Way to Bring About Change
    24 Organizations Change Most by Surviving Calamities
    25 People We Think Need Changing Are Pretty Good the Way They Are

    – The Aesthetics of Leadership
    26 Every Great Strength Is a Great Weakness
    27 Morale Is Unrelated to Productivity
    28 There Are No Leaders, There is Only Leadership
    29 The More Experienced the Managers, the More They Trust Simple Intuition
    31 Leaders Cannot Be Trained, but They Can Be Educated
    32 In Management, to Be a Professional One Must Be an Amateur

    – Avoiding the Future
    33 Lost Causes Are the Only Ones Worth Fighting For
    34 My Advice Is Don’t Take My Advice

    See more details on : http://www.shearonforschools.com/Management%20of%20the%20Absurd%20Paradoxes%20in%20Leadership%20by%20Richard%20Farson/

    Hope this helps.

    Laurent

  5. Loved every line.

    Coming back to the subject of How To Get You Kid into a Good School, it turns out now that they are dropping the ‘lottery system’ after this year.

    The parents who are going through this lottery system are already breaking under the stress. Two days ago, a friend saw a parent have a hysteric attack in our primary school’s yard. She just totally lost it. It frightened the children who witnessed it.

    And now they know that they are the only set of parents to have to put up with this absurd system, where you must enrol your child in every school you can find, and then pray/practice voodoo/rub crystals/take LSD/sacrifice a chicken/whatever else you think will increase your chances of getting your child into a decent school in your area.

    And it’s worse for the kids. Apart from the incredible uncertainty over their future, they now have little chance of staying with their friends. They will be scattered by the lottery.

    And now they are considering using ‘geographic proximity’ to determine who gets into what school. There can be no system better designed to reduce social mixity, which was the point of the reform in the first place.

    So, after two years of pain, anger and frustration, we will have a system which will achieve the direct opposite of the original aim. Bravo!

  6. Matthew,

    Thanks. What has happened is really such a pity. While experts (which I’m not) are now trying to find out how to sort the mess, I intend to write an article on the possible causes of our politicians’ surdity: they had been told well in advance that they would create chaos but did not listen…

    Why?

    That’s the question we need to investigate to try to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

    Laurent

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