Posted tagged ‘vision thing’

On the road to God knows where

February 19, 2009

It is said that Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel remarked recently that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. In fact, there are many reasons for suggesting that Ireland’s current difficulties provide an opportunity to re-consider our economy, our political habits and our society. People are generally willing to think more radically when the status quo isn’t working as well as it should. So we need to ask ourselves where we are going; and we need to use the debate prompted by that question to set out a vision. Armed with the vision, we are more likely to be willing to make sacrifices, and we are also more likely to be able to contribute to the process that will lead to our destination.

So far we haven’t done much of this. What’s going on right now is a kind of national firefighting, with teams of people pouring water over conflagrations here and there, and others running around shouting, and others again in shock looking at the charred remains of some of the fires that wouldn’t go out. You get the picture.

Much of the public commentary, and I think a good deal of the chatter at the bar over a pint, is about the Horrible Bankers. Without wanting to take away from the truly amazing story of what some of these good people apparently considered right and proper in conducting their business, at this point it’s a sideshow. Putting the men from the financial boardrooms in the stocks and throwing rotten tomatoes at them may be perfectly justifiable and even fun, but right now it doesn’t help us at all. We need to move beyond the firefighting and finger wagging and get to the vision thing. We need to know where we’re going next and how we’ll get there.

A few people have started making suggestions about a very different form of society and economy than the one that brought us the Celtic Tiger. Higher taxes (at least for the rich), public ownership of this and that, cast iron regulation of the other, are amongst the things on the menu. The Boston versus Berlin thing is also being resurrected, but it’s a little tricky because Berlin is also in a bit of chaos right now and Boston may, in the Obama era, be rather unlike Boston.

The serious point of this post is that when you want to recover from a crisis you need a strategy, not merely tactics. And the strategy requires a vision. And it may be time to suggest, gently, that cutting public expenditure is not a vision (even if it is right), and may not even be a tactic. Nor is raising taxes. Some of the big questions we need to be asking now include: who will be creating this country’s wealth in five years’ time? To what extent and in what way do we expect to distribute that wealth? As we keep talking about innovation, what kind of innovation do we want Ireland to be known for, and how can we harness that innovation to generate both growth and jobs?

Some of these questions are put and addressed in the Government’s plan, Building Ireland’s Smart Economy. But on the whole that document is too busy, and perhaps contains too many detailed ideas without setting it in the context of an overall vision. And most important of all, that vision, when we have it, needs to be communicated directly to the people.

The vision thing, and how we get out of all this mess

December 11, 2008

The former US President George Bush (father of the current President, George W. Bush) is said to have suggested during the campaign that won him the presidency in 1988 that he was not good at, or much attracted to, what he called ‘the vision thing’. According to the report, what he called the ‘vision thing’ was some sort of strategy for taking his country forward. Bush was more interested in the nuts and bolts of government, and his formula for good government was to have good people in charge; what substantive policies they should pursue didn’t interest him half as much.

Competency as the slogan on your campaign posters is fine, until things start to go wrong. At that point people want to know where you would like to take them and what you can see on the further horizon, and if a political leader cannot give them a sense of that they lose confidence in them. Four years into the elder Bush’s presidency, at a time of economic uncertainty, the American people voted him out and brought in Bill Clinton.

In Ireland in late 2008, we are desperately short of sightings of the vision thing, and this is reflected in the various ambivalent messages coming out of opinion polls, and may also be contributing to the low level of economic confidence. Of course we must all be brought face to face with the problems that we currently face, but continuing doses of pessimism and doom, and the drip-drip of bad news stories without any rallying cries or encouragement to get out and do something, is killing off the determination and optimism which are needed for recovery. It is not just that the government – surprisingly in my view – seems mesmerised by all the problems and crises, the opposition also isn’t helping either when its political adrenalin seems to be flowing only from continuing to build up the worst possible picture of our prospects.

The government appears to have managed the feat of producing insufficient public expenditure cuts while at the same time persuading the public that it has savagely removed the material supports for disadvantage and old age; while the opposition seem completely stuck in the thesaurus trying to find yet more spine-chilling synonyms for ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’.  Lack of confidence may not be entirely what got us here, but it is (if we can find it) what will get us out. And to achieve that our politicians and other public figures need to find, and quickly, a capacity to communicate the strategy for bold innovation: the vision thing.