Getting People to Believe

“To turn that idea into a reality you have to influence people and gain their support. You must do that in the face of vast forces arrayed against innovation within an established organization, which include inertia, resistance to change, fear of failure, financial disincentives, and the tendency of people and organizations to favor what has worked in the past. Then there’s what might be the biggest hurdle of all, people’s inability to envision something that is truly different.” from “Getting People to Believe in Something They Can’t Yet Imagine”.

With the Singapore Election season soon to be upon us (I would say nearing the end of the 2015), I thought I would write some of my thoughts on getting people to buy into an idea/organisation/concept. More often than not people tend to choose their politicians based on how much they like them and how closely their political ideology reflects their own which in my opinion is a failure of us as humans to see the bigger picture, beyond ourselves as the centre of the universe (but that’s a topic for another day). Belief and believing take centre stage today.

One of the hardest things for any company, organisation or country is attempting to get people to believe in something entirely new, something they never thought they needed and something they will end up paying for at some point in time. If you’ve ever worked in the government service this happens all the time, either through the implementation of new public policy to address social/political issues and problems that arise around the country. These issues could range from traffic congestion, consumer protection, water conservation and healthy living all the way to how people view human rights, national defense and global trade. Governments are constantly battling to build the cocoon of calm and steadiness that usually leads to prosperity while at the same time straining to allow the weird, the unusual and the dynamic to also thrive as that gives a country character and economic engine that knows no boundaries.

In general it has always been a problem for successful organisations especially large successful organisations to innovate and change how they operate. To adapt to their new surroundings or operating environment even as they change rapidly around them. The government is no different and in fact I would argue that it is far worse to attempt innovation in the public service simply due to the sheer weight of the bureaucracy’s approval process and the demand from the population that you get it right all the time. Part of that process is the cost of transparency that is placed on the government where every dollar spent has to be explained and accounted for. While the other part is the fear of waste, where there are some people who see all spending as a waste while others see everything as a good investment of other people’s money. A good and proactive government (civil and political service) searches for that unhappy medium between those opposing views. In the event that there is no balance, typically nothing gets done.

Unlike private companies that are trying to get you to purchase a product or service, public agencies are tasked to provide a product or service and either continues to improve or keep costs as low as possible. This obviously complicates things as it is hard to continually provide a better product or service while keeping costs low. Some companies have been able to do it because they’ve operated using new business models (think Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft), some have embraced completely new technologies (think Tesla), still others have chosen to replicate their service in foreign markets and use those margins to pump up home base bottom-line and even a few have chosen to give up on their clients entirely and move into different industries or market segments. In government the only real options are to change your business model or embrace new technology, both of which are easier said then done.

From my short experience in the the Singapore government, it suffers in my opinion from the problem of incomparable past policy success and an inability to adopt a lot of ground breaking ideas from other countries quickly due to a lack of comparability. A much newer issue has been the dealing with the fallout of some of the past’s more successful policies and programs which have begun to show their age and appear to be at the end of their useful life. All of these issues, the lack of comparability, the failure and perceived failure of existing policies and a growing cynicism of government action for good is driving, in my opinion, a new kind of politics. And to some extent a new way of believing in things.

“The more successful an organization, the more likely it will continue to do what has made it successful in the past and resist breakthrough innovations. Leaders can, and often do, try to make corporate cultures more receptive to innovation. However, providing innovators with the influencing tools needed to gain support for their ideas within the prevailing corporate culture, whatever that culture may be, will likely have a greater impact.” from “Getting People to Believe in Something They Can’t Yet Imagine”.

As a population we have stopped looking for and believing in people who can deliver what works and instead have started to believe and support people that who can promise things that promise to make our lives easier and more carefree. Without sounding alarmist or paranoid, it is dangerous road to travel when we start to follow politicians simply because of what they offer us in exchange of our tax dollar and not for their greater ambitions for the country. We are all on the same mothership (in my case Singapore), and it would be a shame when leaders start to worry more about handling the internal dynamics of the ship and not focus on where the ship needs to be going. And this pettiness transfer to the citizenry and makes them cynical to believing in big ideas or daring suggestions because they feel that it is simply just another political manoeuvre.

I have a few suggestions on how we can start talking about OUR future and less about what we want the government to give us. These suggestions I hope will take us away from the petty squabbling of politics into the more enlightened political atmosphere and debating our beliefs and principles in the hope that we may break down ideological barriers and talk more about what unites us rather than what divides us.

  1. Policies that revolve around government handouts should be handled largely by the civil service in discussion with the citizenry and some civil society groups to prevent the use of pork barrel politics.
  2. Politicians need to be transparent on how much money they make and where that money comes from. Detailed financial history should be submitted to the AGO to prevent conflicts of interest from arising. AGO will then provide an anonymised income set for the public indicating (1) range of income, (2) sources of income and (3) split between earned income and financial income (ratio).
  3. Social policies that ask for more spending should be made only where (1) outcomes can be identified and measured to see if the policy works and (2) there is a stable source of revenue that feeds said funding. Right now, neither happens, and as far as I can see , it doesn’t happen globally either.
  4. Expansion of e-government. Through digitalisation, the government should have a better access to its citizens and should be able to ask and get responses from them on a ready basis. This should not replace clear, critical thinking with the requests from the mob. But efforts should be made to bring the non-political service closer to the people they serve.
  5. Politicians that resort to name calling and insults should be banned from political office for a period of 1-5 years with a bench of 5 judges deciding (3 from the judicial service and 1 judge each from the accusing person’s party and 1 from the defending. Where neither the defendant or prosecution have a political party they may nominate someone from a list of judges. I’m sure there are loopholes here, but this is just a rough guide.)

Appreciate any comment, ideas or suggestions.


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