November 13, 2008
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”, 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 !
 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 messLaurent Ledoux