Nothing gets completed – it just becomes more complex

Particularly in recent years, I have become accustomed to reading news first thing in the morning, and last in evening, and frequently throughout the day, even on weekends. I do this, I realize, because there are on-going problems (political drama, actual political problems, climate change and the bizarre, erratic weather which stems from it) for which I earnestly wish solutions. I want them to come to an end. I want wars to come to an end. I want an end to the horrible political and weather and social conditions which spawn internal and external refugee movements. I want to be able to regard them as solved problems and completed projects which can be tied up with a ribbon and pack away to history, with no further claim upon my emotions or stress levels. I want to have been able to have informed consent to the ribbon tying. I’m OK with the fact that new problems will appear, but I’d desperately love to be done with many others first. Not quite a clean slate, but a different one. Progress should mean this, not simply adding new problems to be juggled at the same time as current ones.

Doesn’t seem to happen.

I was talking recently with a new senior-level government politician, and later with a senior civil servant, about the fact that the many anti-poverty programs, touted by governments of various political stripes, have not solved the whole problem (perhaps some small components). I have made presentations before select parliamentary committees; spoken with this and other politicians; written letters (emails) to government officials and newspapers; met privately with cabinet ministers, and delivered public education programs to schools, about these matters. I have joined advocacy groups. And of course I have made donations to the usual services, and helped individuals as well. Some peoples have been able to get a leg up. Many have not. And new generations find themselves in these well-worn ruts.

This particular new politician described all the government’s newest programs and tried to encourage me by saying, “Well, these are good first steps.” Being not new to these efforts, I recognized that these may be first steps for the new government, but in the history of the problems, not new first steps at all. I made it clear that I thought it silly for her to be so uninformed about the matters before her time. I recognize the argument that each newbie must have some freedom to shake off the past and try something new. I have seen some programs from time to time which made major inroads in just this way. But I think that elected government officials should have some perspective so that they can perceive not only their good new intentions, but some information that will help them stop re-inventing the wheel.

My conversation with the senior civil servant was quite different.   His argument was that the civil service knows quite well the truth of my contention, but that they must change programs to reflect the desires of the new government, even when that means undoing successful programs and/or stalling new efforts (service to the poor is not an agendum of all politicians). Moreover, he pointed out, as time goes by and different approaches are ensconced in law and the bureaucrats roll out the programs in response to both the laws and the governments’ intentions or ideology, often new conditions are built onto old programs, making them more complicated, recognizing particular hardships, identifying more exceptions (these may be beneficent actions), and so forth. And from time to time, program reviews are required either by the elected government or by the bureaucrats. These are meant to evaluate the effectiveness of programs, consolidate bureaus, streamline efforts, and sometimes even make simpler peoples’ access to the programs. They may even recognize the arrival of new conditions (opioid addiction, precarious employment, extreme socio-economic stratification, for example). But somehow these reviews, and the proposals flowing from them, do not actually sweep away a whole category of problems. Rather, while undoubtedly helping some people somewhat, they rearrange bureaucracy, relocate access routes to services, recategorize services, include or exclude some from eligibility, and so forth. Of course, new ways of measuring the effectiveness of the programs are invented. These successive changes somehow perpetuate the problems of poverty and, in the opinion of this senior civil servant, it is unavoidable that the changes both solve some problems and ensure that others will not be solved this time. Better luck with the next iteration.

I am continually involved as a volunteer with local and senior-level politics. I can tell the difference among political and government actions which are the result of mistakes, stupidity, the grinding of the political millstone, efforts at deception, mere political theatre, genuine crises, a paucity of desirable options, and really good and able efforts to meet new situations. I am somewhat sympathetic with the civil servant’s arguments in theory. But I also spend time among the front-line providers, and I hear them express their own prejudices regarding the people they supposedly serve; their complaints about government regulations and policies, their immediate supervisors, their counterparts in other divisions and other ministries, their union, and about the system as a whole. I know that these prejudices and complaints get in the way of good service to the public, because I also spend time advocating for the people they serve and I see the barriers they cause. (Let it be admitted that some of the people for whom I advocate, or whom I accompany when meeting with the system, can be difficult even with the best of staff intentions – the second reason I attend meetings with them, to keep them from getting in their own way.) I understand intuitively how complex solving public problems can be.

Donald Savoi (Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher: How Government Decides and Why, and What is Government Good At: a Canadian Answer) explains that civil servants have different masters, depending on their position in the hierarchy. Those in the lower half “answer” to the public. Those in the upper half answer to their superiors, including government. This can cause major differences in the effects of public service. The lower half may feel that the system supports their service to the public, or they may feel that it impedes or is not at all oriented toward that goal. Those in the upper half may feel that the system must appear that it ought to work, and as long as their superiors don’t catch on to problems, they are OK. Place that understanding into the senior civil servant’s explanation at the beginning of this post, and you perceive an additional complication. It isn’t necessarily that the new solutions add complexity to no good end; it is that people using pliers and screwdrivers may be unable to saw something in half.

I attend many public consultations offered by urban and transportation planners at local and higher levels. I read the materials before attending the sessions. I see that the complexity of their vocabularies can make it difficult and frustrating to participate. I actually read something in one of the preparation materials which made no sense – it had to do with the height of one balcony over another in a multilevel building. Uncertain that I understood the profession’s terminology, I enquired. One civil servant saw the problem, agreed that I had understood the matter, and that the description in the material was wrong. A more senior person joined our conversation, examined the illustration and caption, and responded, “Right, so we’ll change the wording to make it more consistent.” I was left with the impression that it really didn’t make a difference – perhaps he knew that the plan would not be implemented anyway, perhaps he did not really understand the problem, perhaps he was embarrassed and wanted to leave the conversation without expressing any concern – don’t worry, be happy! If the professional vocabulary is so complex that not even the professionals understand it, or so complex as to not matter, well, you see the difficulty. This was part of a design to increase the density of local housing in an urban core. The project mattered, but apparently how it was to be accomplished did not.

With such a variety of complexities, I don’t know what it is to which I am to give informed consent. I’m not sure that those directing and participating in the systems are giving informed consent, either. (I have a distant memory of a New Yorker series on a General Motors car which came into being without anyone in the company being able to identify when the Go decision was made, or who made it. Sorry, can’t cite a source.)

An AI expert recently assured me that, notwithstanding the complexity of current data collection and sorting systems, and even though many have existed for many years, the correct approach to whatever difficulties they have, is to add more AI. I wonder why it is not preferable to stop the current construction of complex towers of algorithms, and start something new. I’ve been told by other experts that the risk of doing that is simply too great: there is no one who can look at a complex program and understand it totally; being able to identify where to intervene to correct something may not be possible; and predicting the effect of changing something at the base of the tower could be impossible. So there are potential glitches which may not occur until a particular level of complexity is reached. In addition, a given company may not have truly competent technical people and their efforts may cause unnecessary problems. I asked one expert how current programs are appraised for their reliability and efficacy. His answer was to run another AI alongside. I am concerned at the absence of a human in there somewhere.

We seem to add to our traffic problems by adding complexity. I live near the busiest highway system in North America, sometimes as many as 20 or more lanes. The only suggested solutions to the traffic, is to create more opportunities to travel not only by road (including dedicated public transit lanes) but by rail – more complexity. Perhaps we should reduce the need for travel. Travel for work: local communities could foster work hotels, where people, regardless of the company for which they work, could travel a short distance to a building from which to work remotely. They could enjoy the company of other people (probably healthier than working alone at home), and avoid lengthy travel. Travel for shopping: most local stores are branches of chains which also offer items on line for delivery. Our commuter train system offers station depots where goods can be delivered and picked up. Such depots could be located at the work hotels. This, too, could reduce travel. Travel for recreation: simulcasts of live plays and concerts are increasingly available at local theatres. Of course, there is value in getting away. But reducing travel except for such times, could reduce complexity, reduce GHG emissions, reduce stress from travel, make it easier to be at home for family and community events, and develop community. Perhaps eventually some highways could be torn down, and the land used for healthier purposes. This is an example of solving a problem at its most basic level – reducing the needs which cause the problem. It is preferable to increasing the complexity.

An easy matter to which to give informed consent.