I was watching a little video on CNN that talked about the rising cost of medical care in the United States. One of the phrases that captured my attention was “defensive medicine“. Essentially defensive medicine is the idea that if you run another test, get another opinion, you will be insulated from lawsuits or at least minimize the damage of a lawsuit. The doctor knows the test is useless but does it anyway for purely defensive reasons.
Unfortunately, that is the way that many companies, particularly governments, behave in their day to day activities.
The idea that you do follow a specific process for doing things, even knowing that there are better processes with better results, all because you want to minimize lawsuits, minimize the damage (monetarily or reputationally) is defensive in nature. Defensive processes (need to get a catchier name) cost taxpayers billions of dollars per year.
You’ve seen it before: someone gets in trouble due to a once in a hundred year circumstance. So the processes are changed so that the once in a hundred year circumstance is detected … ninety-nine years from now. You’ve heard the excuses: “providing value to the taxpayer“, “ensuring accountability” or, my favourite, “ensuring taxpayer money is spent wisely“. Yes, there do need to be safeguards to ensure that taxpayer money is spent wisely and that we are getting value for money. But, if you spend more money trying to ensure that you’re not wasting money, aren’t you wasting money?
Sometimes we need to sit back, take a look at things and ask ourselves, does this make sense? Are we doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? Yes, trying to ensure that taxpayer money is spent wisely is a good thing. But are we putting in place the right steps to prevent it or are we trying to shift any potential blame to someone or something else?
Common sense tells us one thing, but government bureaucracy normally tells us something else.
And yet, government bureaucracy has also failed so many times. For instance, there are checks and balances to ensure that elected members (or appointed members) of the government follow certain expenditure rules. How many times in the past few years have we seen politicians beleaguered and brought down by spending issues? How often were they just “following the rules” and yet they were still considered guilty? The idea that we can create a process, a rule, that will always work out for the best is in itself a lie. People will always find a way around whatever process is in place.
Instead of trying to be perfect, be good enough. Put things in place to catch 90% and then think about whether or not the effort spent to catch the other 9% (because 1% will never be caught) is worth it. If you’re talking about million dollar contracts, it’s probably worth it. If you’re talking about whether someone buys a book from the cheapest source or the most convenient, I’m not sure that the effort is worth the payback.