7. The problem with problem solving

This chapter will look at the key skill of problem solving.  It will also explore the importance of disagreement in the problem solving process.

Henry Mencken quote


When it comes down to it, the job of a government is to understand problems, determine solutions, make decisions, and then communicate the decisions made back to the electorate.  Writing it like that makes it sound very simple, but of course, we know that it isn’t.

It could be argued that the most successful organisations are those who have worked out the best ways to undertake these processes, and execute them with a degree of ease.  These companies have teams looking for problems that need to be resolved (sometimes even going as far as inventing problems that we hadn’t recognised as existing yet!).  With a problem recognised, a range of possible solutions are determined and tested.  The best looking solutions may be trialled, and the very best piloted to a small market. And, if all goes to plan, the solution will be rolled out, accompanied by vast fanfares of highly targeted advertising and PR.

Of course the skills required to do this aren’t straightforward.  Problem solving requires creativity, research, analysis, development, testing, teamwork, leadership, management, decision making, planning, financial analysis, communication, emotional intelligence and so on.  Universities research these skills, experts write books and give presentations about them, coaches and trainers teach them.  It is a massive industry, and is so because of the business value of not only using these skills, but constantly developing them further to find new and better ways to undertake them.

Why?  Because bad decisions cost money.  Lots and lots of money.  One wrong poor decision can effectively kill an organisation.  Kodak failed to recognise the impact of digital photography, DEC tried to implement its own operating system whilst users wanted a uniform operating system which Microsoft were already dominating the market with, and Lehman Brothers bought vast amounts of mortgage-backed securities without properly assessing the risk, such that when this particular market collapsed causing the GFC, nobody was willing to bail them out.

The problem solving process

Before looking at some examples that highlight the issues the current political system has with problem solving, let us first understand the recommended processes for problem solving.  These processes have been developed, tested and regularly used, and shown to be highly effective.  Management books are full of them – this is no longer rocket science, but lets take a moment to understand the process.

The first step is to understand the type of problem, as this determines the rest of the process.

Problem solving falls into two categories, analytical and creative.  For the basis of this discussion we will focus only on the former which is used where “problems faced are straight-forward, when alternatives are readily definable, when relevant information is available and when a clear standard exists against which to judge the correctness of a solution” (Carlopio and Andrewartha, 2008).  Given that most of the issues that our politicians need to resolve fall into this category, let us define the best-practice process in detail to highlight the shortfalls in the system currently used in government.

The analytical problem solving process is relatively straightforward.

1) Define the problem.

2) Generate alternative solutions.

3) Evaluate and select an alternative.

4) Implement and follow up on the solution.

Sounds simple, and it is.  So why does it so appear to so categorically fail amongst our political classes?  Why are we enacting legislation in one government only to have the next government immediately repeal it?

Because the single biggest impediment to effectively utilising this process, is perhaps unsurprisingly Step 1.  In many cases the problem isn’t quite what it is explained to be.  According to the LNP whilst in opposition, Australia was facing a debt and deficit emergency following the decisions of the Rudd government to stimulate the economy to try and prevent the worst effects of the Global Financial Crisis.  Yet according to economists from around the world, the Australian economy was in great shape and outperforming almost all others over the same period.  So who is right?  Without understanding that reality, without properly understanding what the problem is, how can it be properly resolved?

Or how about Climate Change?  The Gillard government implemented a market based mechanism that would have polluters being financially penalised for producing greenhouse gases.  In opposition, the current government cried that this “carbon tax” would not only be ineffective, but it the additional costs would make Australian industries uncompetitive, such that immediately they formed government, they began the process to repeal the laws and introduced a “direct action” solution.  (What is doubly interesting about this issue is that a “market based mechanism” to address the issue had been LNP policy prior to the current PrimeMinister becoming leader of the opposition.)  Even when evidence revealed that not only was the tax appearing to be working with emissions coming down higher than expected, AND it was doing so without the implosion of our industries and economy as had been “predicted”, the government still went ahead and removed the legislation and replaced it.  The fact that the benefits that apparently each family was going to receive, namely the $550 savings in our yearly power bills don’t appear to have come to fruition, is apparently neither here nor there.

It is easy to see that the current political processes that attempt to solve problems fail in a number of places.  Problems don’t appear to be properly understood (nor articulated clearly); a range of solutions do not appear to be generated (only one is ever put forward and generally presented as the “only solution”); no evaluation of solutions seems to take place prior to selection of the best one (because only one is ever presented);  and finally, the solution picked is not followed up to determine whether it is working or not (and if it is, the results are often simply ignored dependent on whether they match or don’t match that parties perspective).  What the government decides to implement is what we get.

The impact is that we end up with an environment that is impossible for any organisation, whether business, public, Not for Profit or otherwise, who are dependent on government decisions to be able to effectively plan for their future. What one government implements, the next may simply remove.  A predictable long-term environment is highly important for the organisations dependent on government legislation to safely make long-term investment.  To achieve this result we desperately need to improve the process such that truly long-term solutions are implemented, and if achieving what their goals were, stay implemented.

Building quality long term solutions.

I suspect that at this point, our political leaders would suggest that they want long-term solutions too.  However the only way they would state that we would get them would be to ensure that their party gets into power, and then stays in power.  With a majority in the lower and upper houses, you’ve got that “stability”.  It is, of course, a tantalising suggestion, and unsurprisingly one that many governments request from the electorate, and whilst it might ensure legislation doesn’t constantly chop and change as parties take turns of being in charge, it doesn’t resolve the issue that the solutions being enacted aren’t always up to scratch.

Let’s examine in a little detail some examples of the quality of legislation that has passed through a lower house with a built-in government majority, yet failed to pass a senate requiring the support of a few cross-bench senators most of whom have a political leaning towards the government.

1) Higher education bill.  Problem(s): Australia’s best universities cannot compete on the world stage because fees are fixed and government should’t be subsidising student fees so much.  Solution: Allow universities to uncap fees and charge according to the market, decrease government subsidies to student fees and increase those coming from the student, change the indexing for the repayment of student fees (HECS).

The senate failed to pass this legislation as they considered that fees might rise too high, discouraging those students from lower socio-econonic backgrounds from attending the course/university despite having the academic ability, but perhaps not willing to take the financial risk.

Despite failing a first time, the government proposed the almost identical legislation again, though this time trying to use a leverage that without the senate approving it, funding to the National Collaborative Research Strategy would have to be cut resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs.  Again, however, the senate did not approve the legislation, and the government were forced to back down, though they “miraculously” did manage to find funds to maintain the Research Strategy.

Despite the lack of support, the government is committed to the reform.

Reason for failure:  The actual problem was very badly defined.  Without this, determining appropriate solutions is impossible.

2) Social Security.  Problem: Rising costs of welfare making it increasingly difficult to balance budget. Solution (amongst many):  Increase time for those under 30 to receive welfare once unemployed to six months.

These measures were part of a package of reforms aimed at cutting welfare costs.  How unemployed Australians under 30 would be expected to survive for 6 months without welfare wasn’t explained.  The legislation has since been amended to make the waiting period 1 month.

Reason for failure:  The solution might have help fixed the problem, but it was clear that it would have created another, perhaps significantly larger problem if it had been introduced.  Again the solutions proposed to match the problem were restricted to certain perspectives and artificial constraints.  Other solutions that might have been introduced to address the problem were ignored out of hand.

3) GP copayment tax.  Problem: Increasing cost of healthcare in the budget.  Solution: Make all those visiting their GP pay a $7 fee to discourage them from making unnecessary visits.

Originally the fee was to be split $5 to the GP, and $2 to a new fund that eventually would be used for medical research.  Amongst the many issues raised, the following are a subset:

– how would this decrease healthcare costs if money collected was not coming back to the budget

– early intervention in medical problems is far cheaper and more effective than late diagnosis.  Discouraging people from seeking early help will do the opposite of saving money

– the solution would require additional administration from GPs, potentially making any potential saving redundant.

The government tried twice to rewrite the legislation to make it more palatable, but without luck.  It has now apparently been removed.

Reason for failure: The problem was not properly defined.  The solution did not solve the problem as it was communicated.  The impact of the solution would have likely to have had a short term success, but in the medium to long term would have probably made the problem even larger.

The first question that should be asked is how the lower house actually passed legislation that was kicked out of the senate.  Unless, of course, we recognise that when you have an inbuilt majority, these houses of debate are anything but.  Indeed they have simply become a place where legislation is simply rubber stamped.  The lower house clearly did not conduct an adequate quality test for the legislation.

And even ignoring this fact, these examples reveal that the process for building solutions in our parliamentary system simply don’t work.  They fails at pretty much every stage of the problem solving process.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important aspect to recognise is that there are ulterior motives and agendas that are not communicated.  And these ultimately tie back to the party based system of government that we have.

1) The power game.  The over-riding principle is not policy, but politics.  The most important aspect of any policy is about being in power, and staying in power.  Politicians appeal to the electorates emotions, rather their logic, if they can find a policy area that they can use to differentiate themselves from their opponents.  Fear is a particularly powerful emotion, and has been used to gain political support at elections.  So legislation that can look tough on “Islamic” terrorism compared to the other party, for example, helps maintain the key strategy of staying in power, even if it is expensive to enact; is distracting from what might be more important matters such as the state of the economy; and may also cause other problems that may need to be addressed (such as an increase in racist attacks that might also cause a decrease in students from the Muslim countries who are our near neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia).  This is often termed “wedge” politics, as it is primarily about “wedging” your political opponent rather than actually sorting the problem out.  Other obvious examples of wedge policy areas are defence, “boat people”, “union corruption” from the LNP, with education, health and currently marriage equality from Labor.   Where there is danger for the electorate, is where the amount of effort and expenditure involved, is in no way relatable to the size of the issue.

So unconsciously or not, every problem being resolved has an aspect to it which is to keep the other side out.  This results in solutions being proposed that are far from being the best available for the electorate, but the most politically expedient for the government proposing them.

2) Unstated agendas.   These may be ideologies that may be considered unpalatable to many in the electorate, so these are simply not stated.  However legislation is enacted in order to further this agenda without this being made clear.  For example, the Labor party might enact legislation or make political decisions that whilst not obvious, are trying to further the union movement.  The Liberals, on the other hand, will do the opposite.  The subsidies that were paid by the Labor government to Ford and GM, for example, which kept highly unionised manufacturing plants in Australia open despite being unprofitable (due in part to exchange rates),  were very abruptly cut back when the LNP got into power such that car manufacturing in Australia, and the many other businesses that support it, will soon stop.  The concept from the LNP that we should not support industries that cannot stand up by themselves is somewhat negated when farmers are being subsidised because of drought.  The fact that government also subsidises industries that are profitable (such as mining through tax concessions on fuel) also suggests motives other than those stated.  The fact that farmers and mining companies have traditionally supported the LNP, both through votes and financially, isn’t dwelt upon, nor is the fact that those manufacturing plants employed many workers who, if employed, would contribute to the unions that in turn would support the Labor party).

The Liberal Party is ideologically against the welfare state, Medicare, public schooling, public broadcasting (the ABC and SBS), and would rather private companies provided such services.  This is the ethos of “small government”.  However knowing that these services and institutions are highly regarded by the electorate, publicly stating that you were intending to cut them would be electoral poison.  It is only a surprise to the politically naive that on the eve of the election, and understanding fully how the electorate felt about them, that Tony Abbott promised no cuts to all these services. Once in power, of course, his government has completely failed to keep his word.  And yet, there is comeback for misleading the electorate in this manner until the next election comes along.

3) Party support.  Whilst the electorate are a force to be reckoned with every three years, the backbench are a group whom ministers have to be aware of all the time.  Without the support of the parliamentary party, the party leader lacks stability, since it is these MPs who decide who the leader, and hence our prime minister actually is (this has recently changed for the Labor party, where the party membership has a more significant input, but even so, the “party room” of MPs and Senators still have the majority say).  This fact is important, as it can dictate the type of candidate that parties wish to have on the backbench.  And that is generally the type of MP that will do as they are told and support their cabinet colleagues whatever.  They don’t want problem solvers, or those who are prepared to disagree, rather subservient lackeys who will do as they are told.  Unfortunately these are the very MPs who often, through the test of time, become government ministers.  Even so, backbench MPs are not without ambition and opinion, and as such can have significant power and influence.  Policy must be suitably popular to maintain their political careers (and generous pensions).

4) Adversarial politics.  The very basis of our parliamentary system is adversarial.  It encourages differences of opinion. Many people think that this is a bad thing.  But actually it is not…

Studies were undertaken where groups of managers were formed to solve a complex problem.  The teams were told they would be assessed on the quality and quantity of the solutions they generated.  The groups were identical in size and composition, the only difference was that in half the groups a “devils advocate” was inserted, whose job was to challenge the rest of the groups assumptions, and conclusions, forcing the group to re-examine their assumptions and the logic of their arguments.  At the end of the exercise, the groups containing the devils advocates had performed significantly better than those without, creating more solutions, with higher quality. (Boulding, 1964).

After a break, the groups were asked to reconvene to work on another problem, but were given the option that if they wanted to, they could remove one person from their team.  They all chose to lose the “devils advocate”, despite that person being the key factor that had improved their performance!

In essence, a mixture of opinions and perspectives (i.e. a bit of conflict), makes for better solutions.  Groupthink, on the other hand, doesn’t.  And groupthink occurs in two ways.  The first where people naturally think the same, the second when they are told to think the same; where dissent is shut down.  And as shown from the experiment, the natural instinct is to go with the herd.  We aren’t very tolerant of conflict, of difference of opinion, and we will go out of our way to stop it, even if that very thing provides benefit.

The value of the adversarial system of government that we have, prides itself on encouraging this difference of opinion.  It is built around the debating chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate (or in the UK, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords).  And with the almost built in differences of opinions of the major parties, the result must be better legislation, surely?

Unfortunately not.  By the time we introduce our differences of opinion, our “conflict”, into the problem solving process, we are already too far along.  At the review stage, disagreements on policy detail are framed as being “politically motivated” or “partisan”, and by that time it’s too late.

All of these factors significantly affect the ability of our governments from enacting legislation that is purely about the best interests of the electorate.  Indeed we have been banished to being simply an aspect of the game.  An important aspect for certain, but no necessarily the key stakeholders, which democratically, we are supposed to be.

So what is the solution?

Achieving long term solutions requires long term commitment from all sides of parliament, to work out the best solution, to agree that the most convincing should be accepted (even if one personally disagrees), and to convince the electorate that this is the best way to move forward.

You need to build consensus.

And the current means of solving problems, and making decisions in our political system simply do not promote this.  Of course up till now, this has really not been a significant issue for our political classes.  If our politicians get it wrong, so what?  They’ll just try something else and have another go.  And our politicians know this.  In any other sphere, and particularly in business, this would be simply unacceptable.  People would be fired.

From being a major economic power, Japan has clearly lost much of its international competitive advantage over the last twenty years.  A significant reason for this is that its political system is somewhat moribund.  Fortunately for Japan, its internal market is large enough, and mature enough that this isn’t a significant issue.  The people of Japan continue to enjoy a high standard of living despite of it.  Australia, however, with its much smaller population, its much larger geographical dimension, and less diverse and smaller economy, is much more dependent on the rest of the world for our prosperity.  And because we live in an increasingly global economy, it is vital that we recognise that Australia’s legislative bodies need to work and deliver in a much more effective manner.

However we see ourselves, we are a small player in a big game.  But are we playing to our strengths?  Are we focused on the industries of the future, or of the past?  But do we have the decision-making, and problem solving, processes that will allow us to be nimble, recognising opportunities and quickly capitalising on it?    Or is political opportunism more important?

We had the opportunity to lead the world in designing and developing high technology solutions to health and commerce, via a highly ambitious, though not inexpensive, National Broadband Network delivering high speed connection via fibre to the home and to the office. Given Australia’s physical location at the fringes, surely an opportunity to be right in the heart of the increasingly important virtual marketplace would be considered a priority?

And with a significant coastline, large open spaces, and being the sunniest continent in the world, we had the opportunity to take advantage of the natural assets to be a market leader in renewable energy too.

Unfortunately in less than two years we have fallen so significantly behind the competition due almost entirely to politically motivated decision making, we will never recover in regaining our lead in these two future critical areas.

The sole glimmer of hope on the horizon however, is that almost all democratic governments of the world are caught in the same, or similar, decision making morass.  Improving our governmental processes could give Australia a significant advantage over our countries who are still locked into the same ineffective problem solving systems.   And that in itself is a goal worth striving for.



Boulding, E. 1964, ‘Further reflections on conflict management’, in R. L. Kahn and E. Boulding (eds.), Power and Conflict in Organizations, Basic Books, New York

Carlopia, J & Andrewartha, G. 2008, Developing management skills: A comprehensive guide for leaders, Pearson Education Australia, French Forest, NSW.


About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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