Why nations – and organisations – fail

By David Bicknell

I just came across an excellent piece by Craig Dearden-Phillips on why nations – and organisations – fail.

In it, he discusses a book,  ‘Why Nations Fail’, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

He writes: “The opener of the book contrasts two halves of a city, Noglales which straddles the Mexico-US border. One sits in the region on Sonala, Mexico, the other in Arizona, US. Here the people, culture, climate and operating conditions are the same. On one side of the border, incomes are many times higher, there are good public services and crime is uncommon. On the other, people are mostly poor, there are few public services and crime is rampant because the state isn’t in real control on the ground.

He continues: “Perhaps what has capitivated me most, though, is the read-across to why certain types of public services fail, despite wonderful resources and high levels of native talent. Analogous to the extractive and exclusive institutions described at state level in this book could be placed the large public sector monopolies which still dominate much of public service in Europe and certainly in the UK.

“Here, power is often monopolised and change, even ‘good change’ does run against the interests of many of those involved. Initiative is often powerfully suppressed. It is hard, frequently impossible, to set up in business against these monopolies and there are often few political processes which can be used to break these systems down.

“What am I thinking of here? Well, if you haven’t guessed, I am alluding to many of the organisations from which spin-outs do or don’t emerge.

“The truth of the matter, and I see this every day, is that setting up a new business to deliver public services feels like it probably does to set up any ordinary business in parts of the developing world. You need the buy-in of a variety of power-brokers, all of whom need to see their interests satisfied. You need to go through all sorts of bureaucratic processes to show you’re not a risk and are ‘worthy’ of delivering services.

“From there, you need to make all sorts of promises to the system that its interests will not be threatened and create opportunities for the system to have it’s say even when the business is up and running.

“All of this, of course, creates a massive disincentive for any sane person in public services who wants to change things. The risks are massive – to career, to sanity, to reputation – that most people, quite understandably either stay put or move out. Those that try to start a public service business have to run a gamut that looks far more like something you’d see in Mexico than in Midshire, UK.”

Dearden-Phillips makes some excellent points and the whole piece is worth reading.

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