One of the biggest things hanging over all of us at present is where the North Korean nuclear missile issue will lead—which may be somewhere very bad and frightening. So you would think we would all be talking about it all the time. Friends meeting in pubs mention it, but only in passing, and often to laugh at the two world leaders who hold our fate in their hands. Otherwise, it is an absent topic of discussion.
Why is this?
I think it is because it is such a big issue and something we cannot as individuals do much about.
Even if we want to take some action, it is not clear to whom we should be sending petitions and emails, who we should be demonstrating against or for, or who we should vote for to make any difference at this point.
Instead, we get back to focusing on our day-to-day lives—and to the comparatively safe political areas of the continuation of the May Government and the complex second order issue of how long a transition to Brexit might be.
While this is an understandable reaction, it is not always a good one. We end up looking away from the major issue and instead searching for smaller things to do and improve.
So at home we worry about what’s for dinner tonight more than the fact we are racking up debt we can’t afford.
In councils we worry about getting planning permission regimes for underground basements more than the fact that some of our high-rise housing stock has become a potential death trap.
In the education department we disrupt the whole teaching profession with some relatively small impact amendments, rather than focus on why many kids are not getting even adequate grades—whether that is called a C or a 4 in the new language.
In charities we build up an obsessive worry with day-to-day management concerns, and lose sight of the fact we are not getting very far in pursuing our charity’s mission. Hence at NPC we often try to take organisations right back to their purpose and their theory of change.
Perhaps we are all misled by current fads that have crossed over from sport. Before it started to get into a bit of controversy, British cycling was thought to be the epitome of the idea that the route to success was to make marginal gains or improvements in everything you did. While this may work for some sports and a bit elsewhere, there is no reason to think it works in other areas of life of public policy.
In business you sometimes need to smash the model, not marginally improve it over and over again. In relationships, you sometimes just have to walk away.
And in public services there comes a moment when you can no longer ignore the big fact: that the system is just not working and no amount of oil in the engine or tightening of the screws will make much difference.
In the case of North Korea, given there is not much most of us can do, concentrating on something else may be a sensible approach. In many aspects of our public and private lives, though, this diversion approach is deeply flawed.
A version of this article originally appeared in the MJ.