Public strategy mistakes

Andrew Curry writes: I have been re-reading Geoff Mulgan’s book on The Art of Public Strategy. It was published in 2009 after Mulgan had stepped down from his role as Head of Strategy in the UK Government Cabinet Office.
A couple of chapters in, after discussing ‘bad strategy’, he turns his attention to ‘predictable mistakes’. He argues that there are seven repeating patterns of errors that re-occur across different governments in different countries. The list is instructive.

  • Lack of empathy. the inability to think into the minds of others, particularly enemies.
  • Psychology of investment. Economics may tell us that ‘bygones are bygones’ but governments find it hard to walk away from policies or programmes with significant past investment.
  • Wishful thinking. Many strategies assume that their operating environment will remain constant or that existing trends will continue in a straight line.
  • Failure to understand dynamic processes. These create effects that can grow–and fall–much more rapidly than people expect.
  • Extremes are likely. This is just a function of probability. A normal distribution curve in a large population will produce outliers.
  • Continuing with assumptions that are wrong. Groupthink leads to shared analysis. This misses factors that would be obvious to an outsider.
  • Avoiding difficult tradeoffs–especially between existing ways of life and the emerging demands of the future. (pp 32–36).


Reading this list again, it’s striking how many of these errors can be mitigated by the straightforward application of futures work.
It challenges wishful thinking, it helps to identify the reinforcing loops in dynamic processes, and it challenges groupthink. Futures is also a form of critical thinking. By looking at wider contexts, it can help bring other voices into the room and clarify the nature of the trade-offs between the present and the future.
There’s a further, obvious, point to make, of course. Using a bit of futures work as a way to identify blindspots and risks, or to “red team” policy proposals, is both quicker and cheaper than cleaning up after a policy mistake.
Image at top of post: ‘Group Think and the Ill Informed Sceptic’, by Dana Ellyn. Dana Ellyn’s portfolio can be found here.