In systems work it’s essential to use logic to figure out why a system behaves the way that it does. This is particularly true as many organisational members will provide totally different explanations for what’s happening, often based on organisational rhetoric that has little or no meaning in the real world.

There are many possible logics.

There’s the type that’s encapsulated in formal training and that is used as the underpinnings for mathematics and much of science. There are also other ‘logics’ that make sense to those using it but may not survive the rigors of the formal version.

One less formal logic comes from the idea that people will behave in their own self interest first, so organisationally we might conclude that the members will work to their own advantage whenever possible.

So if we set up an incentive scheme, we might legitimately expect managers and staff to go for the incentives first, to improve their salary and benefits or whatever, before they go for wider outcomes for the organisation as a whole. And this appears to be exactly what happens.

Unfortunately most incentive schemes are based on only a small part of some wider system and therefore usually produce dysfunction. In government that’s because the idea of the scheme is to find a way to reward the public servants, and it’s the department that’s writing the rules, the same managers who’ll get the incentives!

The needs of the community as a whole usually don’t get much of a look in.

EXAMPLE. Computer sales dysfunction.

In large IT companies it’s common to have individual sales people with individual incentives to sell…they get a percentage of the total value of goods that they sell. In most cases, these incentives are credited to one sales person with little regard for the contribution of others (e.g. other sales people, secretaries etc). Managers get a percentage of the sales from all of the sales people under their control.

Problems occur with this kind of system when national sales are desired, for example, the Canberra office wants to make a sale nationwide, needs the cooperation of the state offices but everything keeps dissolving into internal competition and conflict as everyone demands a ‘cut’ of the big bikkies.

One answer is to only pay incentives when the wider goals of the organisation are met, thereby providing an incentive for everyone to cooperate to achieve those wider goals. Once that happy state is reached, everyone who helped reach it can be safely rewarded.

Unfortunately our governments usually apply local incentives as rewards without consideration of the impacts on the wider community.

Road works that disrupt traffic cost businesses huge amounts, yet most Councils are fundamentally uninterested in getting the road works done quickly - they can’t afford the overtime. From that example on up to incentives that pay public servants proportionally to the size of their budgets/departments without reference to the achievement of valued community outcomes (our health department probably qualifies in this area), we find that governments often end up fighting the results of their own incentive programs.

Shifting battlegrounds

Systems approaches can deliver different conclusions and approaches that could help us to view our situation in new ways. As an example I’ll use logic to figure out some future possibilities with a view to working out how to act now to create a different future.

We’re seeing a new phase in government relationships in which private sector groups are charged with delivering outcomes that the government desires.

Privatisation of water, security, roads and prison management are all roles that various governments have passed off onto the private sector.

In addition, many private sector groups are able to convince governments to support their business ventures, usually with huge subsidies, in exchange for promises of jobs, party donations, etc.

Superficially, these deals may seem like a good idea. Too often problems emerge that are due to hidden factors – often created by governments that are corrupted, incompetent or seriously out of touch with their own electorates being unable to make good decisions on behalf of the community.

What can the population do if problems appear?

Trying to influence a private sector company through an unresponsive government is nearly impossible, influencing the private company itself could be mission impossible if the prize is substantial or if SLAPPs are to be used. State governments have demonstrated little or no capacity to negotiate effectively with private companies, nor can they pass on the ‘public good’ goal to a group that only exists for its own profit.

This means that populations may well have to devise entirely new means to counter threats that come from PPPs (private/public partnerships).

EXAMPLE: The pulp mill.

Many have compared the pulp mill battle to the Gordon/Franklin campaign but from a systems perspective the Franklin was a totally different circumstance.

Basically, the Franklin was a battle of environmental principle fought on public land that everyone could claim some right to. The threat was to the environment and any revenues therefrom. The battle was against a government owned business – Hydro - that had at least some notional responsibility to the public. Most action involved protest in an attempt to influence the political system involved.

The pulp mill is an entirely different battleground, with different rules, fought for different reasons with entirely different consequences.

People in the Tamar aren’t defending a remote wilderness, they’re defending their homes, their investments, their lifestyles, their health and their futures. Yet they have no political mechanism to defend those things when their own governments are colluding with a private company that wants access to public resources.

This makes the pulp mill a very different issue that is going to be far ‘stickier’ – it is unlikely to just go away.

If communities are left unprotected by our political system, that lack of representation will come back to haunt those who abandoned the people.


The pulp mill is a battle for control of resources – forests, agricultural land and water – it’s a public versus corporate interest battle. The mill is a private venture to be built on private land with mainly private money under corporate regulation.

The biggest problem stems from the mill only being assessed against environmental criteria while all other criteria such as costs, risks to other industries, costs of subsidies etc., have been missed or ignored.

The community members, forced by the state government to do all of its own research, learned about the risks that they each face firsthand.

Thus, the community is generally more informed than their politicians about potential problems from a pulp mill in that location.

The artificial ‘blindness’ induced by the truncated ‘approval’ process places rural communities at risk of lost jobs and livelihoods in the area of ‘world scale wood supply’, all declared irrelevant by the proponent. The sheer scale and scope of the impacts ignored is breathtaking, and the huge number of people who could be adversely affected indicates a massive failure of political representation.

Communities are asking why these impacts were ignored, why their needs were left from consideration, why governments looked at benefits but not costs and risks.

The most logical answer is that the information gaps were created by the proponent to help assure their control of the resources (forests, land and water) by making approval more likely.

The government just didn’t have the ‘ticker’ to stand up for Tasmanians.

If things turn out as people fear, then home owners will be watching their property prices plummet as buyers move away from the threats perceived from a mill. Rural centres will lose cash flow and jobs as farmlands disappear under trees. More country dwellers are likely to experience symptoms of poisoning by atrazine and other toxins in their water, people who love their lifestyle risk being threatened with foul odours – all this from a proposal that independent experts agree is risky, misplaced and that is being rushed into existence by a state government that is far too friendly with selected corporates.

The risks are made more severe by the proponent having no chemical processing experience whatsoever yet wanting to set up a world scale pulp facility upwind and close to a populated centre.

Tamar’s emergency services and emergency response capabilities are not up to ‘world scale’ disasters.

These real world issues, starkly highlight some of the risks of the brave new PPP world (other examples include the Enron debacle and the cross city tunnel in Sydney). Somewhat similar problems are being experienced in Victoria with the Port Phillip Bay dredging scheme in which environmental defenders are battling the Port Phillip Bay corporation – another David and Goliath effort.

Some strategic conclusions

I call protest the ‘stop hitting me’ strategy. It’s certainly worth a try but in the face of a determined opponent who stands to gain huge wealth and/or resources, it’s unlikely to be effective.

When a contest is going on until someone gives in, experience tells us we need to keep disadvantaging our opponent, while advantaging ourselves so that we ‘win’ the overall contest.  The last person still standing.

In the pulp mill case, protest alone seems highly unlikely to stop the process because the prize (control of forests, land and water) is worth far too much to the proponent. They are not going to give that up unless they are forced to do so because the hidden incentive will drive them to act to protect their own self interest.

The most obvious means of stopping the process is for the public to become significantly more involved in their own political decision making processes. This could encompass stacking branches or organising consumer power to deny business to corporations that violate public trust.

If the public were able to bring themselves to that, then problems are much less likely to occur.

Other strategies include a whole raft of ‘counter systems’ techniques that cannot be published because they would probably work, and we can’t have that now, can we?

Oh and by the way

This report from The Age…

Some of Victoria’s favourite seaside getaways and most sought-after beachside suburbs will have to be abandoned or relocated over the coming decades as climate change leads to rising sea levels, storm surges and floods.

So how secure is the site of the new Royal Hobart hospital? Does anyone know?

PS. This movie about government honesty, about war and is instructive for those with broadband access. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article19362.htm

Mike Bolan
http://www.abetteraustralia.com
Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive and management coach.

Mike Bolan

The pulp mill is an entirely different battleground, with different rules, fought for different reasons with entirely different consequences. People in the Tamar aren’t defending a remote wilderness, they’re defending their homes, their investments, their lifestyles, their health and their futures. Yet they have no political mechanism to defend those things when their own governments are colluding with a private company that wants access to public resources.

This makes the pulp mill a very different issue that is going to be far ‘stickier’ – it is unlikely to just go away. If communities are left unprotected by our political system, that lack of representation will come back to haunt those who abandoned the people.