Why election promises are like fixed price contracts

Photo by MadLab Manchester Digital LaboratoryThe public like confident politicians who exude certainty and give clear answers. We get a feeling that they’ve got everything under control, and they’re the people to vote for. Equally, it’s frustrating when we hear them flim-flamming in the face of an apparently straightforward question. Why do they do that? Is it because they’re just angling for all the votes they can, trying to please all the people all the time?

Well, maybe. But maybe, sometimes, it’s also because real life is very messy, and they’re concerned that they don’t want to be boxed into a situation which doesn’t ultimately turn out the way it was described. I often get frustrated by an interviewer who asks what a politician will do in some hypothetical situation and then is unhappy when they don’t get a straight answer. Because when you get to it, real life isn’t hypothetical. It’s full of unexpected details that can radically change the options available.

While I’d love politicians to give straight answers, sometimes it’s just not realistic. And when they’re forced to explain why they didn’t keep their promises it’s embarassing. I think it was in the seven-way leaders’ debate that Nick Clegg said he couldn’t keep his party’s promise on the tuition fees because when he got to it the situation was very different. In his debate with a studio audience David Cameron was berated for not having kept his promises on the NHS. He defended this saying he’d kept the “biggest” promise on the NHS—which is amusing because I suspect at the time his list of promises wasn’t segregated into major ones he’d be more likely to keep and minor ones that he’d be happy to drop. But clearly in his own mind he chose between priorities. Meanwhile Ed Miliband has boxed himself in by apparently providing certainty around no deals with the SNP. This would seem to severely limit his flexibility if his party doesn’t win an overall majority, and with a bit of imagination we can all think up situations where the SNP could offer a deal with Labour which is genuinely acceptable to it.

All this is because a verbal sketch of the future is a woeful description of reality. Real life isn’t hypothetical; no plan survives first contact with the enemy; in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they’re different.

And just as politicians know election promises suffer when they meet reality, so technical people fear fixed price contracts. Equally, we fear estimates (which are loose projections) being interpreted as promises. When a project is described we know that for all the words, the definitions, the clauses and sub-clauses, real life has a habit of being much more messy. So if we’re asked for a fixed price contract we tend to be defensive. Just as we all love confident politician promises so customers love fixed price contracts. But when we get to the reality after the ballot, or the signatures, it gets trickier. A fixed price contract typically has lots of caveats or padding to provide safety for those delivering it. That’s not so good for the customer, either in terms of the price in the contract when signing, or if they later find themselves having to pay extra for change requests… much like any of us coming towards the end of a parliamentary term, and finding the people we voted for, and what they required of us, wasn’t as promised.

Clearly honesty about reality is a much better policy. It would be more useful if policicians spoke about their prinicples and priorities, how they place one kind of demand above another, and how they weigh one kind of belief against another. In other words, how they would navigate reality rather than the precise course they’re going to take. But that is a much more difficult conversation, because it doesn’t make such good media.

In the software world we have much more success when we appreciate that reality is much more complicated than any paper description. Once we do that we can build relationships and processes that help us navigate that reality much more successfully, and reach a goal we really couldn’t have anticipated in such detail at the start. That might even be the kind of thing you could put into a manifesto…

Photo by MadLab Manchester Digital Laboratory