Sunday, August 22, 2010

Who is driving?

Dear Colleagues

The investment publication Barrons had a headline this past Saturday "Who's Driving?" with the cartoon image of President Obama and GM President Whitaker struggling for the steering wheel. The article was, of course, about the planned GM IPO that would have repay the Government some or all of their stake in the company.
Who's Driving
Washington and GM have very different goals. But both are eager for an IPO that could value the car maker at $60 billion.
However, before I read the article, I thought the cover image was about the economy and the election rather than about the specific case of GM. From this perspective the cartoon image of President Obama driving an automobile and the question "Who's Driving?" led to all sorts of thoughts including the image of Obama with a car full of his Democratic family all with their own ideas of where the car should be going ... and few Republic relatives all of whom were quite clear that where the he was taking the car was all wrong. In my version of the story Obama kept on driving with a steady hand in spite of all the noise and hoop-la that was going on.

The image resonates well ... most families have had experiences like this on a holiday trip ... and the driver had better just keep on driving without losing his or her cool.

The road map available to President Obama is not reliable ... and the metrics are not very helpful. They are not particularly encouraging in confirming he is on the best path to success ... but not really very informative anyway. I have always said that the purpose of data is to help to make good decisions ... but these data do not exist. All we have are rather unreliable statistics that show the ex-post facto results of a whole portfolio of actions that have taken place in the past ... both distant past and recent past. Actually getting cause and effect from any of the statistics is just plain impossible ... and the correlation that people try to draw from the statistics are really laughable except that the unreliability factor of the data are rarely talked about!

An anecdote or two maybe a way forward in the political realm ... but decision making needs a lot more than this. The way forward can be about anecdotes, but organized into a system of dataflows that enables analysis of what specifics worked where and when and especially why and how they worked in each and every particular case.

I am troubled because the prevailing metrics are most likely to encourage decision makers to make bad decisions ... missing the good decisions that would make the USA perform much better much sooner. I have traveled a lot both in the USA and around the world ... and people could be a lot happier that they are with quite modest changes. But the changes have to be quite specific to the needs of the group ... and not the typical Washington model of "one size fits all" which really translates into "nothing fits anyone"!

A good driver watches the road ... collects the data and drives accordingly. In terms of data, there are not much worth having for President Obama to drive in the best possible direction. This should be changed sooner rather than later. We use social networks to connect people ... why don't we use social networks to connect the data ... to connect the dots, and to replicate things that work well.

And while we are about, why not use the data to discontinue what does not work at all. So called "pork" sometimes has huge value for the community ... sometimes the pork produces pure boondoggle ... and there should be data to show the difference. The system of accounting and accountability is broken ... perhaps better said is missing. The budget is passed as a result of market forces otherwise known as "horse trading" and once passed the moneys are spent ... but with proper accounting and accountability the value from the spending would get put on the record and the decision makers can be accountable for their waste. This is not complicated but it does take commitment ... and up to now there is none.

I for one do not like to see the driver without a map and essentially blind because the metrics about our society are so out-of-touch with modernity and reality. The USA can and should do better and do it soon.

Peter Burgess

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