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A Committee of Incompetents

September 5, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

The world economy is a disaster, the refugee crisis in the Middle East is getting worse every day, and global warming is out of control. There are many major problems to worry about so what is our major source of concern here in New Zealand? Well, it’s whether we should have a new flag, of course!

It seems that our prime minister has decided he isn’t quite as invincible as he has been in the past and that perhaps his reign will soon be over, and that he isn’t going to have many great achievements to be remembered by, so why not be the PM who was responsible for a new flag?

So a process has been launched which might eventually lead to a new flag being chosen for the country. The current flag has two major deficiencies: first, it looks too much like Australia’s and that leads to a lot of confusion; and second, it is too representative of our colonial past when New Zealand was part of the British Empire and it doesn’t really represent our modern place in the world.

So at great expense (we are talking tens of millions of dollars here) a multi-step process has been put in place: first, anybody could submit a design for a new flag; second, a committee narrows those hundreds of designs down to 10, then 4; third, a postal referendum gives everyone the chance to choose their favourite new flag from the four designs available; and finally, another referendum gives the chance to vote for either the most popular new flag or to keep the current one.

Now clearly there are numerous problems with this system which I will mention later, but maybe the most significant is that the process is so complicated and costs so much. My local hospital is in a dire financial position mainly due to it being underfunded, and $26 million could make a big difference there. Underfunding of the health system will lead to people not being treated and dying, that is certain. Yet we spend money on a convoluted process to choose a new flag instead. Really?

On many occasions I have pointed out that when our leaders (politicians, managers, etc) say that there is no money to do something they are simply lying. There is always money available and it just comes back to what they want to spend it on. There never seems to be a lack when it comes to hiring expensive but useless consultants, reorganising institutions which generally leads to them being worse than when they started, and paying for advertising campaigns to advance their social and political agenda.

But getting back to the flag… I do think we should have a new flag because I really don’t feel our current flag is distinctive or relevant enough to really represent the country. But as I have said in the past, I do think New Zealand should become a republic first, and that should trigger a change of flag. While we still maintain the Queen of England as our official head of state it seems quite logical to have the British flag in the corner of ours.

But let’s assume we do want a new one. How good are the designs which the current process has produced? Well, not very good actually. The consensus seems to be that they are fairly poor, that two of them are virtually unusable, and the other two (which are almost identical) are both just average. What went wrong?

Maybe there is just no design talent in New Zealand capable of creating a good flag. That seems unlikely because I do see good design (as well as terrible design) in many places around the country. Maybe all the good designers decided not to participate in this rather flawed exercise. I saw some quite good designs (which have been rejected) so that also seems unlikely. So maybe the whole process was flawed from the beginning? Well yes, as expected, that is the exact problem!

Maybe the biggest problem is that this is a bureaucratic process involving a committee of people who are basically incompetent. As far as I can see none (or very few) of the Flag Consideration Committee members have any skill in the area they are considering at all. We have a corporate CEO, a former mayor, a company director, a tech company CEO, an Olympian, a former chief of the NZ Defence Force, a youth councillor, a sports coach and administrator, an academic and flag historian, and a Maori academic.

I don’t see any experts on design there, and only one person with any skill in the area of flags at all. It’s not even a very good representation of the New Zealand population. There are far too many CEOs and other business bureaucrats, for example.

So the process was doomed from the beginning. Many people will say that this is deliberate and that it was set up to fail, but it really does seem to me that this process has been driven by the prime minister himself and he genuinely wants it to succeed. So yet again the problem is more attributable to incompetence rather than a conspiracy!

But it’s easy to be critical so how would I have run the process if I had been in charge? Well I could have done it at a fraction the cost and I would have got a good result too. Here’s how…

First, forget about the public meetings, advertising, expert advisors, and all the other expensive elements in the current process. This whole thing should happen on-line and the only advertising and discussion necessary can happen in social media and in general news bulletins – for free. Yes, I know that some people don’t use the internet much. Well tough luck. This new flag is about the future, and if people are still living in the past and can’t be bothered to make a small effort to get on-line then they will just have to opt out.

Second, let anyone make a submission but their design should only be a concept, not necessarily an exact and final design (see later for an explanation of this idea). The submissions would be made on-line and would be checked by the community in the same way as Wikipedia articles are reviewed. That way really poor, distasteful, and other unusable designs would be eliminated quickly.

Third, after a certain interval – say 6 months – a vote would occur on-line for the preferred final 10 designs. Registration would be necessary and this would be done using a standard email verification process similar to what is used for most current internet services. I know that it is possible to abuse this process to some extent, but until every person has an official unique identifier (the sooner this happens the better) there is no realistic alternative.

Fourth, the 10 best submissions would be improved by professional designers. These people might need to be paid or they might want to do it “pro bono” or for the inevitable fame they would garner from creating the winning design. This process would combine the good ideas the general population might have with the design skills of an expert.

Finally a flag would be chosen from the 10 improved designs and the winner of that would be matched against the current flag. These two votes would also happen on-line although the final vote might need to be done by a conventional referendum simply because on-line voting just hasn’t really been set up properly yet. As I said above, until every person in the country gets a unique ID which they can use for this sort of purpose it’s hard to do on-line voting properly.

Finally, the new flag would replace the old one over time. Both flags would be acceptable for a certain time period but all new flags made should be the new design. That way there would be no major cost in doing all of the replacements at once.

So there it is: a process which is cheap and would get good results. And the real difference is that it doesn’t involve a committee of incompetents. Now if a similar process can be designed for all the other situations in life where committees do stupid things the world would be a far better place!

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