Carbs, Cummings and the coming storm: What do you expect?

By Naomi Smith 
Best for Britain's CEO

What do a miserable meal and an EU trade deal have in common? It depends on your expectations…

A colleague was once treated to a meal at a Very Nice Restaurant; a meal, he was assured, that would be a culinary zenith.

There was a small problem though: a distinct lack of carbohydrates. No bread, no spuds – boiled or triple-fried – and not even a risotto option, and he wasn’t happy.

The absence of carbs may have been trendy, but it was an unpleasant twist.

 ‘Folk have ended up in the Clyde for less,’ he growled on the way home, via a large bag of chips.

Expectations had not been managed. And, whether that is in the world of posh dining or politics, it’s problematic, because no one likes feeling short-changed.


Understand and deliver


The old adage ‘Under-promise and over-deliver’ is not without its drawbacks but any professional should have it in their toolkit, not least our politicians.

Over-promising is, of course, common in the run-up to a general election but, once a government is in place, particularly with a healthy majority, the logic of over-promising withers, especially with regard to short-term projects and issues.

Take the pain early, get people used to the bad news, set yourself up to claim victory when things turn out less bleakly than predicted.

Which begs the question: why does our present Government keep mismanaging expectations?

When Covid-19 reared its spiky little head, so did talk of herd immunity, taking it ‘on the chin’ while ‘striking a balance’, keeping calm and carrying on, despite what was happening in other countries. Then, of course, we went into lockdown.

The talk was of staying home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. Then it became apparent that, in protecting the NHS, infected elderly patients had been moved into care homes with predictably distressing results.

Again and again, given the chance to inject some reality into proceedings, the Government over-promised and under-delivered.

Britain’s ‘world-beating’ Covid app that didn’t work. Test and trace targets that served only to highlight that testing and tracing wasn’t going terribly well. Talk of English airbridges to other countries while Wales still had a five-mile travel restriction.



Can I speak to the mismanager?


Of course, the apparent mismanagement of expectations isn’t limited to the coronavirus crisis. 

What has happened to the much-trumpeted ‘oven-ready’ deal with the EU?

Or the ‘easiest trade deal in history’, back in the headlines because that somewhat premature phrase fell from the lips of Liam Fox, now Britain’s newly-anointed nominee to run the World Trade Organisation. 

At this point, it is only fair to mention that not every minister appears to have dug the same trap for themselves.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has had a good 2020 so far. He plays his cards close to his chest and his most recent problem – the leaking of stamp duty cuts – showed exactly why careful management of sensitive information is needed. 

And Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden managed to surprise a deeply depressed arts world with his £1.57bn aid package.

So expectations management is certainly possible, even in today’s febrile political environment.

Why, then, do experienced politicians so often set expectations so high that failure seems inevitable?


Sweet little mystery


Some politicians, particularly figureheads, never come out of ‘campaign mode’, the hard-sell operation more associated with election periods.

Donald Trump is the prime example of such behaviour, but Boris Johnson’s superlative-laden soliloquies have always marked him as a man permanently campaigning for the next shiny opportunity.

This can, in part, explain some of the issues around expectation management, as can the fact that some ministers simply find themselves out of their depth, whether they are cognisant of that unfortunate reality or not.

Behind the scenes, though, there is a very clear pattern. 

Exhibit A: Get Brexit Done – that happened on January 31st, with no regard for consequences such as trade impact, supply chains, security or suchlike, because they were not the key outcome. Brexit was the singular important outcome, and it happened.

Exhibit B: When Dominic Cummings was appointed as the PM’s right-hand man a year ago, there was no shortage of evidence (from his own blog) that he would be targeting the civil service. Fast forward to last month when top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill was forced out as Cummings and Michael Gove turned the screw. 

For his part, Cummings warned the Cabinet Office in particular that ‘A hard rain is coming’, and it was reported he wants a smaller, more focused Whitehall, whatever Whitehall thinks.

Exhibit C: Another area Cummings has been scathing about has been the MoD, in particular, procurement processes. In December, it was revealed a spending review will take place and, as an aside, that the Department For International Development could be merged with the Foreign Office.

This week, Cummings has sorted out visits to five top-secret security sites amid reports of a shift to greater reliance on small high-tech units. As for that mooted merger of DFID and the Foreign Office, well, it was announced last month.


Getting into outputs


At its simplest, there is no great secret to the Government’s approach: announce that changes are coming, then get on with delivering them, whatever opposition crops up, and whatever people’s expectations may be.

It can be described as a fairly brutal approach, or strong management. It’s certainly not new – back in the days of Margaret Thatcher, for example, the privatisation of British Telecom was a political hot potato.

Minister Nigel Lawson, when presented with a value-for-money analysis of the proposed privatisation, said the decision did not rest on value-for-money – it was simply the right thing to do.

Whether you agree with the approach or not, the present administration gives the impression of being extremely output-driven. 

There is no doubt that measurement, analysis and forecasting (or superforecasting) are important, but the focus appears to be on outputs, not inputs or, indeed, outcomes. In other words, don’t be derailed by how much your next big project is costing, or who it is impacting – the important thing is to deliver it. 

For example, the key output was delivering Brexit. Potential outcomes, such as increasing poverty (negative) or an oven-ready deal (positive) were of secondary importance – which is why Brexit has happened but clarity over our relationship with the EU has not.

The only expectation being fulfilled was the expectation that Leave voters had of an EU exit, and even that ‘expectation management’ was simply a by-product of delivering the desired output.

To take another controversial example, if ‘taking it on the chin’ was a strategy for dealing with the coronavirus crisis (and the Government continues to deny it was), the desired output would be herd immunity, while a likely outcome would be a significant spike in Covid-19 deaths.

An additional feature of this Government is its enthusiasm for change – it may be Big-C Conservative in name, but its approach to shaking things up in totemic institutions (the Tory Party included) is anything but small-c conservative.

Rather than seeing crises as being only bad, they are also viewed as being opportunities to embrace change, to throw old rule-books in the bin and do things differently.

Johnson’s decision to gut the party of pro-European figureheads had nothing to do with the managing the expectations of the 5million-plus Conservatives who voted to Remain, or indeed the expectations of those who voted to Leave. Rather, it was about asserting control to take the party in a very particular direction.

While this approach is guaranteed to cause upset, it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that everything No.10 does is somehow driven by malice.

Rather, we should focus on our own efforts to change the world, emphasising the outcomes that we consider to be of paramount importance. It’s easy to say, hard to deliver.


Let’s talk trade


What does this tell us about what might happen with an UK-EU trade deal as the December 31st divorce deadline nears? 

Firstly that, even though the evidence overwhelmingly points to a thin deal or no deal as being extremely damaging to the country, including those Red Wall seats that helped Johnson to victory, an EU December divorce is the only key output from the Government’s perspective, and there is a core team firmly motivated to deliver that.

Secondly, that even the appalling impact of Covid-19 on families, businesses and the NHS is unlikely to affect on that December deadline, however much preparation time we have all been robbed of.

Thirdly, given the risks from that double impact, it is vital that businesses, campaign groups and individuals maintain pressure on the Government to agree a good deal with Brussels – no deal, or a thin deal, will spell catastrophe for some businesses and, particularly worryingly, will push basic food prices up significantly. 

Fourthly, the Government is not particularly interested in managing our expectations. We get stuck with whatever is in our EU doggy-bag come December 31st, just like my colleague was stuck with that carb-free menu. 

The difference is that we can’t just walk out of the restaurant, because we’ve already leapt out the window.

What we can do is let the Government know that no deal, or a thin deal, is not an acceptable result, not a good result, and not an ambitious result – whatever their expectations, or ours.

By NaomiSmith
Best for Britain's CEO

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