Tick tock goes the political clock

Mar 26, 2021
Dr Brian Keegan explains why having political deadlines isn’t always a good idea.

Deadlines have always been a feature of commercial life, but the ubiquity of dates by which something must occur is a relatively recent facet of political life. Politics has always had its own cycles, from the duration of a monarch’s reign to recurring intervals by which general elections must be held. Mandatory due dates or precise intervals more often reflect an external rather than a domestic political imperative.

In recent decades, commercial concerns over deadlines have spilt over into the political arena as government becomes bigger and more technocratic. Timeframes for decision-making are as much determined by foreign affairs as domestic factors. Having political deadlines isn’t always a good idea.

While the obvious effect of imposing a deadline is to ensure the completion of a task, the act of establishing deadlines in itself may have a more subtle effect on the way we think about those tasks. Some years ago, researchers at the Carey Business School at John Hopkins University in the US carried out a study of how workers react to deadlines. They found that longer deadlines can lead people to believe that a particular assignment is harder than it actually is. That, in turn, can result in managers committing more resources to the work needed to meet the deadline. If this finding is correct, it suggests that the shorter the deadline, the less costly it might be to meet.

The researchers also found that, when workers are faced with multiple deadlines (and few of us have the luxury to do only one thing at a time), people seem to prioritise less important assignments with immediate deadlines over more important pieces of work with more extended deadlines. There is an apparent human tendency to do what is urgent rather than what is important.

While these findings have implications for management practice, they also have implications for the political system. The tendencies described by the researchers have been echoed in the handling by both the British and the European institutions of the Brexit process. The repeated extension of Brexit deadlines through 2019 created an impression that the process was more difficult than it actually was.

In 2020, everything to do with the pandemic was urgent, so almost everything else received more political attention than the negotiations. Consequently, both sides allowed themselves extension after extension to negotiate the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, even though it should have been well within the capacity of Brussels and London to deal with both issues in parallel. The result was that we ended up with a barebones trade agreement between the UK and the EU, concluded on Christmas Eve.
This outcome has been unnecessarily difficult for businesses to deal with. Customs and quality checks involve routine and paperwork – such processes may be unwelcome, but companies can generally cope with processes. The shortcomings are on the official side.

The British Government is now repeating the same mistake by further pushing out deadlines associated with the Northern Ireland protocol and the checking of goods arriving into Great Britain from the EU. Far from relieving pressure on businesses, this will merely perpetuate the difficulties. It also makes the setting up of checks and controls by customs and trade officials and businesses alike appear more difficult.

Political processes are rarely amenable to deadlines because the political process is not always about what should be done; it is also about what can be done. One of the lessons of Brexit is that we would be better served if the political process stopped trying to look like a business process.
Dr Brian Keegan is Director, Advocacy & Voice, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.