May 9 • 3M

On career risk

And getting stuff done

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Dominic Frisby
Readings of brilliant articles from the Flying Frisby. Occasional super-fascinating interviews. Market commentary, investment ideas and more.
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Following on from my piece last week Tyranny of the Midwits, I was having dinner the other day with a friend who is a big cheese behind the scenes in government. I won’t say his name. Discretion is everything. In any case, his name doesn’t really matter to what I’m about to say.

I was busy moaning, as we all do, about the state of the country, and at the fact that there are so many things that, it seems to me, could be quite easily remedied with some reasonably ballsy decision-making by those in power. Yet, from planning to tax to energy to immigration, nothing seems to change. We seem to be having the same arguments we were having decades ago, arguments that I thought had long since been won.

Something, in particular, that drives me nuts is when a politician or public servant in an influential position stands down, then goes to the media and says what needs to be done. And you’re thinking: you were literally just the person who could’ve done something, you were in charge, why didn’t you do anything? I remember it happened with George Osborne, with Mervyn King and many more besides.

My friend came back with this. If you want somebody in government or in a position of influence at a major institution to do something, and you say to them, “look, we have this problem here, and this is the solution, this is what needs to be done”, they will nod their heads wisely and then do nothing, because to do something involves, first, extra effort and initiative on an already-full plate, but, more significantly, career risk. The path of least resistance, with the least career at risk, is usually to continue with things as they are. People don’t like to ruffle feathers or create work for themselves unless they really have to.

On the other hand, if you invert the process, and you leak a story to the press, create a scandal, then you turn to the person in charge and you say, “look at this story, it’s really bad, it reflects really badly on you, you’ve got to do something,” then suddenly the career risk to that person in charge becomes not doing something.

So the only way you can get people to do stuff is by creating pressure, usually via the media, and somehow making the career risk to not do something. It’s why it so often seems we are ruled by the media. It’s only when they create a scandal, and put pressure on those who run institutions, that anything ever gets addressed. Our system of rule is not a democracy but a media-cracy, never mind a mediocrity. It’s nuts. It’s such a backwards way of operating.

Lord knows how, but if any of the change so many of us crave is to happen, we need to invert that career-risk thing, so that the risk in powerful institutions is no longer doing something, but not doing something, otherwise, this ridiculous process of leaking stories to the press to put pressure on those in charge will continue to be the only way of ever getting anything done. It’s such a second- or even a third-rate way of operating, and it’s especially bad when midwits are running the show.


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