In her article in yesterday’s Irish Times, Shana Cohen extols the virtue of diverse thinking, especially for “devising solutions to difficult and complex issues”. She writes of the delay in introducing lockdown in response to the pandemic in Texas as an example of where slavish compliance with central Republican policy was inappropriate. Differentiated city policies, including mandatory face covering, were prohibited by the Republican state governor. Huge increases in Covid-19 cases, and deaths, resulted. Perhaps, she suggests, coalition government facilitates the diverse thinking – and argument and debate – required for devising policy in the context of crises. If this is so, she concludes, government party TDs who vote against the government should not have the whip removed, but should be heard, their views considered.
There is a great deal of powerful evidence to support the value of different views, coming from a variety of different standpoints, as a means of solving complex problems. In his book, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, Matthew Syed gathers much of this evidence to explain both failures arising from homophily and homogeneity, and successes achieved by variety of perspectives among decision makers. Among the failures was that of the CIA in relation to 9/11. The extreme homogeneity among agents and researchers, Syed argues, prevented the identification of the danger despite much of the information about preparation for the attacks on the twin towers being known to them. Similarly, loss of life in Everest expeditions has resulted from over-emphasis of the importance of following the orders of the leader. In both cases not taking into consideration alternative views has been disastrous. Among the many successes of diverse thinking, are those in the devising of diets, where it is now accepted that differences between people mean that they need different diets; in leading companies that value diverse inputs into decision making doing better than those that don’t (e.g. Gucci versus Prada); in selecting musicians for orchestras, where screens blocking the selection panels’ view has resulted in the percentage of women in orchestras going up because unconscious bias in favour of men is offset. Even the CIA has improved, Muslim agents helping to identify extremist threats. At the broader level, Syed concludes that cultures “that encourage new ideas, foster dissent and have strong networks through with rebel ideas can flow, innovate faster than those held back by… intellectual conformity”.
All this supports the argument that coalitions of parties with different perspectives may be better in difficult times, facing complex issues, than single party cabinets dominated by uniform perspectives. However, among the key criteria for success is “strong networks”. Even where those involved in decision making find it unpleasant because of argument and disagreement, as long as they are willing to be over-ruled because a view different from theirs prevails, then the process is successful and sustainable. Syed shows that people involved in decision making where agreement is quickly arrived at because all are of similar views, enjoy the process more than where there are different perspectives and intense debate. This is despite the fact that the quality of the ultimate decision may be far better in the latter case.
Back to coalition governments: perhaps what is required is for dissenting backbenchers within coalition parties to be brought into the network, so that even though they disagree with the ultimate decision, they understand why it is being made and can therefore vote for it. In this way the government maintains its majority, policy and legislation to support it are promulgated, and the coalition survives.
David Jacobson is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Dublin City University Business School. He is the Chair of Commission on Industrial Policy in TASC since 2011. He has written and lectured on various aspects of industrial policy and political economy in Ireland. In the 1990s he was an independent member of the National Economic and Social Council. He has also worked in many other countries, most recently Cyprus and China.