As the world gets ever more complex, the default response becomes do nothing…

I have been doing a deep dive lately into the health service in Northern Ireland. The key thing I notice is the more you dig into it, the less clear things get. This tends to be the case for most things in life: beware of people who offer simple solutions. When you talk to people who actually know a subject, their general response to most questions is, ‘it’s complicated.’

In the modern world, things are becoming ever more interconnected and complex. It can be challenging to keep up with the changes and a lot of factors are outside your control.

Take for example, the recent issues with some of the A&E units having to close their doors. The core issue there was bed blocking. They had patients that were cleared to leave the hospital, but there was no care package in place for them. Social work is outside the control of the doctors. So you can see when one part of the process breaks, this has a knock-on effect on the hospitals and even the ambulance service. It is a bit like a production line, when one part of it stops the whole thing grinds to a halt.

At the same time, we are all becoming ever shallower in our focus and concentration.

The other week on Nolan, Stephen Farry MP was discussing how few politicians actually read the reports and bills they are voting on. I don’t blame the politicians. I would be the first to admit that the internet has destroyed my attention span, and it was never great to begin with. We all have a tendency to skim more and we demand all information in tweet-sized chunks.

There are lots of reports being generated but how much of them are ever read beyond the executive summary? We rely on experts to read them and translate them for the rest of us. I am convinced that Professor Katy Hayward at Queen’s is the only person in the whole country that actually understands Brexit, the NI Protocol etc. I have written posts on all those subjects, and I barely understand them. I still have no idea what the hell the backstop was. In some ways, it makes sense to leave these things to the experts, less work for the rest of us. But it does open up the possibility of bad actors manipulating us. Either through incompetence or self-interest, it can be really easy for someone to slip something into a bill or proposal that goes unnoticed. The RHI legislation, where there was no budget cap, is a perfect example.

Combine complexity with shallowness, and you get inertia. Faced with a complex decision to make, the best course of action a politician or civil servant can take is to do absolutely nothing. This is why nothing changes, and things go from bad to worse. Humans are not good with too many choices, as anyone who has had an ice cream lately will testify. Give people too much information and options and they just freeze up.

Or when a decision is made, it just results in more complexity. You take away the transfer test, and we end up with TWO transfer tests.

We are currently being governed by the civil service but this is an organisation that rewards people who keep their heads down and make safe choices. Why risk being grilled on the Nolan Show when instead you can do absolutely bugger all and have an easy life?

So what do we do? I am not quite sure to be honest. The civil service doesn’t do radical change and our politicians don’t seem to have the capacity to make the tough choices or make any choices. The good ship Northern Ireland is drifting aimlessly without any captain at the helm.

Then there is the tendency among some quarters to think reunification will sort out many of these issues – everything will be brighter in a United Ireland. This may be the case, but it is likely 10-15 years away, so what do we do in the meantime?

Maybe instead, we should just be tossing a coin or using a magic 8 ball.

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