What can positive disrupters learn from the failure of Trussonomics?
Successful disruption is critical to making progress - but it has to be planned and executed correctly.
Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng saw themselves as disrupters. They had a plan. But it didn’t work.
Looking back, it’s clear to see that the timing, execution and content were all wrong.
Viewed narrowly, the failure of Trussonomics could be seen as a victory of “orthodoxy” against disruption or radical thinking. We all heard the talk from Truss and Kwarteng about “Treasury orthodoxy” being a blocker for what they were trying to do.
To put disruption and orthodoxy at binary ends of the scale is damaging and incorrect for a number of reasons. Firstly, positive disruption is important within any system. If the status quo is never challenged, then we would never make any progress. This is particularly important when it comes to thinking about the future of public services, which are facing yet more budget cuts and increasing demand – the much stated “perfect storm”. Secondly, orthodoxy is not a counter position to innovation and disruption – orthodoxy is essentially the culmination of experience and expertise across a large population, across a large number of different countries and across a very long period of time. Whatever orthodoxy we have today takes full note of the impact of successful disruptions that have gone before.
So having established the importance and need for disruption and radical thinking, what should those who would seek to positively disrupt learn from this experience? I have drawn on our experience at Mutual Ventures of helping public services to reform.
Below, I set out some suggested “rules” and specific actions needed to follow those rules.
Show some respect for the existing “orthodoxy”
Perhaps, this is an odd thing for a disrupter to say. But as I said in my introduction, orthodoxy is not just an awkward anti-progress position, it’s usually the hard fought and hard won accepted way of doing things. If you just brush it aside, you will fail to win a critical majority of people to your disruption movement. Disruption that tries to rubbish everything that has gone before will not take hold. There will be incredulity and there will be a lack of trust.
Truss and Kwarteng went out of their way to rubbish the whole system – the Treasury and it’s “orthodoxy”, the Bank of England, the Office of Budget Responsibility and (in the end) the markets.
Action – show respect to the established way of doing things and highlight where it gets it right. Be specific about the bit of the system you are aiming to disrupt. Be clear on the evidence that there is a problem and what you are proposing may work.
Timing and circumstance
Timing is critical in comedy, sport and (as it turns out) in launching a major reversal in political/economic strategy. We were, and still are, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis which is hitting the poorest hardest. The markets, so important for our cost of borrowing and ability to trade internationally, were already twitchy. So, it was exactly the wrong time to be trying to kick start “growth” by cutting taxes for businesses and the well-off.
Timing is important for every disruption regardless of whether it is a national or local endeavour. There are always other things going on and you must have an appreciation of how your proposed change fits with the prevailing challenges and priorities of the day.
Action – consider the wider environment and the live concerns of the people you will need to win round to your disruption. No disruption takes place in a vacuum.
There must be a solid moral justification for your disruption. It must be righting some wrong or enhancing fairness. Unfair disruption will always be viewed with suspicion and resistance. It must also be aimed at solving a real problem that “normal” people are actively experiencing – certainly not based on ideology, which was the challenge with the Truss Kwarteng disruption.
Action – Ask yourself why? Doing what you honestly feel is the 'right' thing matters. Of course, there is often no one version of what is “right” - but if you are trying to convince people of an idea you can’t justify for the right reasons, they will smell it a mile off.
Make sure you are (or have) a legitimate messenger
Successful disrupters need to have a legitimate voice – this is especially pertinent when considering change in public services. It is very difficult to positively disrupt if you are in a position (of power or not) where a large proportion of those you are seeking to convince do not think you have the right to disrupt. This was the position Truss and Kwarteng were in. Their plans went directly against a lot of what was in the manifesto at the last general election in 2019.
Liz Truss was elected by less than 100,000 Conservative Party members in a country with an electorate of around 46 million. She did not have the authority to carry through her disruption. This rankled with people almost as much as what new PM and her Chancellor were proposing. Disruption is about winning hearts and minds – not capturing positional power and forcing a change.
Examples of legitimate messengers within public services include: those with an electoral mandate for making the change; professionals with deep experience and credibility in the field; and those who have personally lived through the system as a service user (for example some of the best reform ideas for the care system come from care leavers). There are others.
Action – Ask yourself “Can I legitimately call for this change?” If not, then you will need to recruit some early supporters to your idea who have credibility within the existing system.
Finally, do the groundwork!
All of the above means you can’t just spring disruption on the world! You have to put the work in. People do not like surprises. Even pleasant surprises can annoy people if they feel unsettled by it.
So, make sure you can defend the idea and answer basic questions such as “why now?”, “how will it work?” and “what will the wider impact be?”. It was clear that Truss and Kwarteng had not done their homework. Anticipate the challenges and have answers based on evidence (not ideology).
Before opening your idea up to broad analysis and criticism you need to have already recruited some
support. Refer back to the earlier point about legitimacy and the need to have people on board who have the moral and positional authority to call for the change you are proposing.
Action – Anticipate the questions and make it easy for others to understand and join you and at the same time make it difficult for those who oppose your disruption to challenge it. Lock in some legitimate early support before going public.
I am sure there is more that can be learned from the failure of Trussonomics – but if they had paid attention to even some of the above things might not have ended up the way they did.