The Co-ordination Problem
One of the shortcomings of a military regime that has slipped under the radar is analyzing the method and process used by officials to handle the recurring co-ordination problems faced by any government. Inside the military sub-culture, there is a strict chain of command, an official hierarchy that is a map of coordinators and their place in the co-ordination system. This kind of command and control, it has been argued, is essential in order for the military to fulfill its mandate. In times of war, so the theory goes, those in the lower ranks who question, challenge and criticize their commanders orders, increase the risk of playing in the hands of the enemy. In war, people expect a restriction on their civil liberties as a necessary cost to defeat a common enemy.
The problem is the co-ordination structure and the reasons behind it are ill-suited for civilian governance.
I’ll start with the lack of suitability of the military paradigm when used for civilian rule. The military government reaction is predictable. When there is a conflict or challenge, the military government reacts in much the same way as would be expected if a foreign enemy had attacked the country. It is difficult for military men to distinguish between their own civilian disagreements, and factions within society who hold different political or ideological views, from threats of exterior enemies. If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In the case of military government, all threats are of equal standing, and the response is to get out the hammer.
The old styled command and control system has been disrupted by modern networks—multiple, interlocking groups with no central control, but whose members come together to support a particular idea, policy or program, and then dissolves back into their core network. Co-operation now happens inside networks and those networks are outside of the effective control of the traditional hierarchy. Though the censorship campaigns on Internet access and permitted speech is an attempt by traditional authorities to regulate the digitally networked communities.
The second problem with the military mindset running the civilian show is the nature of co-ordination required to understand a problem, to understand the context in which the problem emerged, to design a series of possible solutions to the problem, to test or simulate outcomes from the proposed solutions, and to deploy the resources, monitor the distribution, use, effectiveness, and adapt solutions in the field as more and better information is acquired. The command and control co-ordination system, in my view, doesn’t scale well outside of the military sphere. There is no reason that it should. It was designed for a precise purpose and use. But as we know when you’ve built something with a hammer, it is difficult to believe that tool doesn’t have the power to build anything.
The latest example of the co-ordination problem is the proposal to require foreigners to buy a SIM card for use in Thailand. The press reports on the proposal have changed day by day (which suggests another type of internal co-ordination issue), but as far as I can gather, the latest formulation is the proposal for SIM cards will apply only to tourists and not to long-term expats in Thailand. The public rationale for the proposal is that once all tourists have local SIM cards, the authorities can more easily track the criminal element who arrive in Thailand supposedly for a tropical holiday but whose true intention is to commit crimes.
Who doesn’t want to exclude people coming to their country with the intention of committing crimes? The intention, as they say, is ‘good’ but how does such a program work in the field, who are the personnel to be assigned, and who assigns, supervises, instructs, rewards, and punishes them? Will it require additional personnel? Who designs the training program for them, and how is the content of the program acquired? What are the unintended consequences of co-ordination? Is there a sunset clause or are such programs perpetual ongoing fiefdoms? What is the tally for the total of these co-ordination costs? Where does the money come from to pay for it?
It is important to keep in mind the distinction between aspirations and implementation of policies in the context of how the world actually works. The SIM card proposal is not that different from Donald Trump’s proposal to deport eleven million illegal migrants in the United States. Easy to say, it plays to a primal fear—that outsiders are evil, ill-intended, with strange beliefs, different ethnicity, bad actors who will disrupt, injure, kill, steal or cheat the locals. Once you lock onto any primal fear target, you get millions of people shouting for blood.
People pumped up with primal fears inside what they perceive is the danger zone don’t ask or care about the co-ordination issues. From their position, the message is: just do it. Primal fear dispenses with any discussion of the specifics to decrease the fear. Except in the most generalized way: build a wall or use a local SIM card. That’s how a blank cheque of fearful people is given to dictators. Fine. The rulers have a blank cheque, the next question is how to negotiate that cheque. Rounding up eleven million illegals, deporting them, building a wall, or requiring foreigners at the point of entry to go through another line to buy a SIM card, or some post-arrival process that ensures none of the foreign tourists slip through the net.
The harsh reality for military governments or a Trump-styled democracy is how to co-ordinate among officials at many different levels of operation that involves millions of people who seek to avoid being co-ordinated, or actively resist co-ordination. Do you shoot them? That’s the ultimate military hammer. But shooting people who are, it can be argued, of economic benefit, but who resist what they seek as unnecessary coercion will unlikely serve the original aspiration of lessening the primal fear. The use of force in such matters only cascades the resistance.
The reality is the cost of co-ordination among the thousands of officials would likely exceed by a large margin the benefits the authorities would obtain. Co-ordination, collaboration, cooperation are the three big C’s that are the infrastructure of successful government polices. When the big C’s are working this is evidence of effectiveness, consent, and acceptance at the multiple layers of society. In other words, policies of a general type used to placate the primal fears are often the most unrealistic and ineffective measures to ensure safety and security. You can use a hammer on nails, but it is advisable not to use it on your head.
My prediction is the eleven million illegals in the United States won’t be deported, no wall will be built on the USA-Mexican border, and the mandatory SIM cards for foreign tourists in Thailand will be shuttled off the main track into the repair yard where such policies sit indefinitely. From time to time, they will reemerge as the time has arrived to pump up the primal fear condition for political advantage.
Some political aspirations will never translate to effectively implemented programs because the co-ordination costs are excessive. History is filled with examples of civilizations with their engines misfiring on aspirations that bankrupt the economy. When journalists, academics, pundits and others start asking about the details of co-ordination I suspect it will be self-evident the spokesperson’s answer will expose the same old tool kit that includes a hammer. In the digital world, hammer users are not the best co-ordinators, and that sad reality hasn’t quite sunk in. We are entering an era where the public furniture is built from different materials by a different network of craftsmen, organized, distributed, and assessed by different measurement tools. The old styled political players are playing catch up in a game they are losing.