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The policy making process still often lacks a strategic approach that engages end user and empowers the agencies involved with delivering outcomes. Michael Ocock FRSA argues that policy makers would do well to learn from strategic project management approaches if they are to turn more of their efforts from good intentions to delivering the desired impact.

In his influential work 'System failure: Why governments must learn to think differently', Jake Chapman demonstrates how the concept of systems thinking can improve the way public policies are formulated and developed. Chapman wrote that if the system thinking approach were employed: “the policy making process would focus on the processes of improvement, rather than the control of the agencies involved… engagement with agents and stakeholders would be based more upon listening and co-researching rather than on telling and instructing”.

He added that from a systems perspective an ideal policy statement would consist of a minimum specification with the following ingredients: a clearly established direction of change; boundaries that cannot be crossed by any implementation strategy; the allocation of resources, but without specifying how they should be used (and that this should include statements of timescale and potential further funding); the granting of permissions, for example, that explicitly allows innovation; and the specification of core evaluation requirements, always based upon the experiences and outcomes of the end users.

Those familiar with the world of projects and project management may see in Chapman's ideal policy making structures similarities with their own preferred model for strategic project plans. If so three questions arise. First, why is the application of project management skills and expertise rarely considered necessary to manage or at least co-ordinate the process of policy making? Second, regardless of whether implementation would automatically follow from the making of a policy, should policy making and strategic planning always be undertaken as if they constitute the preliminary stages of the project that will deliver the desired policy outcomes? And finally, as the primary purpose of any project, regardless of type, must be to implement its sponsors' decisions (and policies), should all projects be planned strategically in much the same way as Chapman recommends for policy making?

A project can be defined as any initiative arising from a need to move forward and, especially for society, the means by which a change as defined by the project’s objectives is brought about. Chapman maintains we do not see the implementation of polices as projects. Should we do so, he maintains, it would considerably improve the chances of a policy being successful but only if we also understand we are almost always working with human-activity systems.

Systems are commonly regarded as consisting of technology alone. But no technology can for now anyway be created or subsequently operated without human participation and even systems dominated by technology are better seen as primarily human-activity systems. Unfortunately it is widely accepted that human activity systems are difficult to describe and to understand. They are constantly changing and perhaps best described as complex adaptive systems.

In his famous work The Lucifer Effect, the psychologist Philip Zimbado defines a human-activity system in this way: “... let’s define Person, Situation and System. The Person is an actor on the stage of life whose behavioural freedom is informed by his or her makeup – genetic, biological, physical, and psychological. The Situation is the behavioural context that has the power, through its reward and normative functions, to give meaning and identity to the actor’s roles and status. The System consists of the agents and agencies whose ideology, values, and power create situations and dictate the roles and expectations for approved behaviours of actors within its spheres of influence.”

However complicated a system might seem systems thinking techniques make it possible to assess how systems of interest to us might respond to system changes we are exploring and which we might ultimately select as our objectives if, that is, we genuinely want to be successful in initiating and securing a policy change affecting that system. Realistic assessments of system behaviour can encompass more than just risk and bring a steadying hand to the analysis and planning that should precede any policy decision. It is also easier to understand and assess the risks we face and the obstacles to be overcome if, in parallel with development of the policy itself, we plan the implementation of the policy as a project commissioned to deliver the changed human-activity system.

Today, despite progress in so many fields of science and technology and the development of advanced liberating methodologies for societal risk assessments and decision-making in projects, we seem to pay no more than lip service to the need to think and formally plan in terms of human-activity systems. Why is it that in policy making and in the planning of projects reasoned and informed assumptions are rarely made of the likely behaviour of the critical components of the human-activity systems to which our policies and projects must respond? These components will be acting as individuals, in informal and formal groupings and as members of structured organisations. Sir John Armitt, writing in the Times recently in his role as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, has said that it is possible to manage the political process more effectively and in doing so build confidences. System thinking combined with the facilitation and co-ordination provided by project managers in the service of policy makers would do what Sir John recommends.

The project management profession knows that projects are not always seen as devices for solving problems; problems invariably dominated by human-activity systems and thus by human behaviour. Projects should not simply be giving life to solutions that emerge from a lengthy sometimes chaotic series of debates, conversations, frantically written and hastily commissioned reports, all to ensure the 'right' solution to the problem emerges more or less aided by the organisation's political forces. If this is the only way we can conduct policy formulation and decision-making, whether as stand-alone function or as a prelude to a project, no wonder so much time and money is wasted on failure. It is almost as if believe we can only test the soundness of our problem-solving by incurring substantial expenditure on project after project reassured by the fact that if all goes badly we can say 'we did our best and lessons have been learnt'. After all, what is an unintended consequence or two amongst friends? A recent edition of the Harvard Business Review's quarterly OnPoint is headed “The Art of Decision Making”; we are in the 21st century, so why not the science of ...?

Michael Ocock is former chair of BSi's Technical Committee for Project Management and a career-long champion of the application of management science to the management of projects, as well as an advocate of the taking of a common sense approach to risk in all its forms.

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