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Leaky Bucket

The UK is a leaky bucket and we’re looking in the wrong place to keep it full.

It’s clear the UK has some serious problems ranging from rampant obesity, poor mental health, demoralised staff, anti social behaviour and decaying roads. Are we looking for the solutions in the wrong place? That’s what this article is about.

The Principal of the Leaky Bucket

Imagine you had a leaky bucket and your solution was to keep topping it up rather than fixing the leak. Over time the hole gets bigger needing more water to top it up.

For some, this isn’t a problem. For others it is. Some struggling with the cost of water look to the government to subsidise their water top ups.  Some see the real problem and fixe the leak. Some realised the hole was too big and changed the bucket.

This principal applies to many of the societal problems we face in the UK, ranging from littering, NHS staffing levels, mental health, anti-social behaviour, poor roads and the general breakdown in society.  All too often ‘topping up the water’ is seen as the easy fix, whilst the leak continues.  

Fixing the Problem at the Wrong Level

Let’s take a simple example: littering. It is a massive problem and seems to be getting worse. People throw out rubbish from their cars and unscrupulous people dump rubbish in quiet spots throughout the country.

In response, often people demand increased police patrols, more litter pickers, heavier fines for those who are caught, artificial intelligence built into more CCTVs etc. Whilst they have limited success, it doesn’t address the problem of why littering happens in the first place.  Littering is a cultural problem and needs a cultural solution.

So we have a culture where people feel they can do what they like as long as they don’t get caught. Therefore, it is natural the answer to the problem is to increase the likelihood of being caught. After all, someone in a car followed by a Police officer is not likely to throw their rubbish out the window. Given that each anti-social ‘tosser’ can’t have their own police officer in tow, it is clear this unsustainable approach addresses the problem at the wrong level. As does increasing the litter picker army to clear up the tosser’s mess.  When I do my monthly litter pick near my house, I usually get about the same sack full of rubbish each time.

It’s crazy and unsustainable to think the answer is to have more police patrols, spend more on CCTV or recruit more volunteer litter pickers just to ensure our environment is kept clean. Yet, this is exactly the approach many people are calling for: more coercive methods to get people to comply with acceptable societal behaviour. When this happens, it is a sure sign that the problem is not being addressed at the right level.

Seeing the Same Problem Elsewhere.

Take a trip abroad to a place like Egypt or India and you’ll see the littering is an even bigger problem than it is in the UK.  Take a trip to Denmark, Germany or Holland and littering isn’t a problem. The latter three countries are as clean as they are because fewer people drop litter in the first place, not because they spend more on picking it up.

Another example is NHS staffing levels. The government invests heavily in training new staff, only for them to leave only a few years into their position. It is shocking how many highly experienced, well trained NHS staff that want to leave. It’s not because of the job they do either, but the culture in which they operate makes it increasingly difficult for them to do the job they signed up to do. It’s the same in teaching.

Another example is mental health, which is getting increasingly worse amongst the UK population. Younger and younger people are suffering more and more from mental health problems. NHS mental health organisations are criticised for not doing enough yet this is another example of the leaky bucket syndrome. Topping-up equates to spending more on mental health provision without looking at the leak that is leading to the problems in the first place.

How often ‘must do more’ is put forward as a solution to a particular problem without really looking at the cultural cause? 

Tiers of Problems

Most of the higher-level societal problems mentioned before (e.g. littering) are outcomes from an underlying cultural problem. Using the bucket analogy, falling water levels in the bucket is not due to insufficient top-ups but rather a hole that needs to be fixed. Once fixed, the only top-ups needed would be due to evaporation, therefore the ‘cost’ of keeping the bucket full would be much less. In previous example like mental health, if we can identify and address the root cause of the problem at a lower level you wouldn’t need to spend more on trying to fix it at a higher one.

I’ve mentioned many of the problems have a cultural cause. However, cultures are built on values and values come from underlying worldviews. The following diagram shows this.

Worldviews (foundational belief systems) generate sets of values. These values form the building blocks of cultures. People operating within particular cultures generate particular outcomes. Therefore, identifying a solution may require traversing the various tiers to identify the root of the problem in the first place. A faulty worldview leads to faulty values, building faulty cultures that create faulty outcomes.

Comparing Cultures – Roads

Have you noticed that when you travel to most European countries you don’t see that many police? Visit virtually any British city on a Saturday night and you will see lots. You’ll sense an atmosphere of supressed violence and also the British response to it – more police to ‘keep people safe’ from beating each other up, which happens frequently. Go to any Spanish city like Barcelona and you’ll see just as many people drinking, having a good time without the violence and the need for police to mop things up. It’s a cultural issue.

Increasing police numbers or even extending the role of the police is pouring more water into an increasingly leaky bucket. It’s addressing the problem at the wrong level.

Roads are another example of an outcome of a particular culture. Britain has appalling roads littered with temporary fixes, roadworks, potholes and road surfaces that don’t last. Travel abroad and you will have a very different road experience because they have a very different cultural approach to building and maintaining roads.

We are told a pot hole has been filled, but never warned of the pothole being there in the first place. Has anyone ever skidded on a filled pothole anyway?

Another interesting cultural problem is our addiction to health and safety. ‘Safety is our priority’ has become a near religious mantra from most organisations across the UK. However, it has very negative cultural outcomes. It creates a culture that shifts personal responsibility onto the state. The state can never be in a position to take that responsibility without stripping every individual of their freedom to choose. It creates a blame culture infected by ‘no win no fee’ solicitors and before long, the cost of mitigating risk in public life becomes so high  that the budget for actually doing anything becomes tiny.

Obsession with The Wrong Thing

An obsession with a problem at the wrong level often shields the poor outcomes.

Using the leaky bucket idea within UK culture, it’s easy to get obsessed by the wrong thing. For example, the focus could be on:

  • The nature of the water being used to top up
  • The compliance of the tap
  • Insisting the person filling the bucket has done a risk assessment and worn a hi-viz jacket before approaching the bucket.

Of course, by focussing on these things it is all too easy to ignore the real problem, which is a leak.

Compliance is another example. It is easy to produce a completely compliant toaster, but fail to notice the slots for the bread are too small for any bread you would buy in the shops.

It’s easy to produce a completely compliant set of roundabouts on a new road, and ignore the fact that drivers struggle to navigate them and regularly crash. 

So it is with most of the societal problems in the UK. Many of them are being addressed at the wrong level. Everyone seems to be calling for more water to be poured into an increasing leaky bucket and few seem to want to fix the hole. Perhaps when cash runs out there will be no alternative to look at the real problem in the first place.