The great delusion of governments and corporations


Some years ago, I was in the room when a consulting firm was pitching a mega-project to the president of research and development at a major multinational company. They would construct a huge IT system that would allow him to manage personally every project in his sprawling organisation. He would be able to dive into every project and make every decision.

His eyes lit up in fevered anticipation. The project never took off – much to his disappointment.

It seems that the failed Soviet experiment taught us many things, but we have failed to take on the most important lesson – central planning of complex adaptive systems doesn’t work. Yet the tendency of people in power to believe in their omniscience is irresistible. Failure, they believe, comes from poor decisions made by lesser beings. If they or people as bright and capable as them (very few) could only make every decision, utopia would be inevitable.

Governments everywhere fall prey this delusion. The UK  has become ever more centralised. Even within government, decision-making have progressively become sucked into Number 10 and the Treasury with individual departments ever more emasculated.

Mrs May’s election campaign was the most explicit manifestation of this that we have seen in recent times. Elect ME. I will run the country perfectly because I am strong and stable. I will negotiate the dream deal with the EU. I will do everything.

The voting public is, thankfully, much wiser. May was stripped of her majority and given a lesson – one she has not yet absorbed.

There is now a new siren song to feed the omnipotent, omniscient ego. It’s called artificial intelligence and machine learning. The rumblings have started. Powerful machines programmed with learning algorithms will make better decisions than any human being. Let us build them for you and you can control the world.

There is an alternative vision as to what AI can offer. A mode of empowering individuals and small groups by enabling at a smaller scale that which could previously only be done by large organisations.

It remains to be seen which vision will prevail.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Barry Cooper says

    But how do you get the civil servants, who are actually more powerful than their supposed political mistresses, to surrender their power to those below? And who are those below?

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Hi Barry. This can only be achieved politically and in stages. We could start by having a federal Britain in the German/Swiss model: 7 or so English regions + Scotland, NI and Wales all self governing. Cut down the Westminster parliament and make it answerable to the regions – as in Switzerland. The experiment with city mayors seems to be going reasonably well. So why just cities?

      • Barry Cooper says

        Hi Joe – that’s a very top-down comment! In my experience when dealing with Government and Local Government it is the bureaucrats who run things. Reorganising things as you suggest will not change the top-down culture.

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