#15 Take the Pain Away

Setbacks can be extraordinarily traumatic in the Slow Lane. All of us can help ease the pain, build bridges, and fix the broken systems that cause the most harm.

#15 Take the Pain Away

In this chapter, I wrote about the painful bumps in the Slow Lane, to find out what exactly happens during our inevitable setbacks, and what we might do about them. It turns out, that all of us can help. By easing the pain, overcoming our impulse to pin blame on others, and by working together to turn around the broken systems that cause most harm.

Three stories helped us gain some perspective on these setbacks.

In the first, we followed Mark Johnson's experience of seeing his life's work rejected by the UK government. It felt particularly devastating and humiliating to Mark and the User Voice team because, like so many people in the Slow Lane, they have lived experience of the problem they try to solve. Rejection felt deeply personal to them because it seemed so arbitrary, paying no heed to the impeccable evidence they had assembled to make their case. And it made them feel helpless in their efforts to spare other ex-offenders the difficulties they had lived through. I concluded, that by leaving people like Mark unheard, we cause unnecessary pain, undermine their trust in institutions, seed alienation, and ultimately weaken our democracy (see Story #12).

Mark's story, and our investigation of why Chicago's traffic signals had failed the blind and visually impaired for fifty years (see Story #13), helped us see the importance of not rushing to simplistic conclusions as we experience rejection. It is tempting to pin blame for our setbacks on people in power, like public servants, but doing this we only risk deepening the divisions among us, instead of healing our democracy (see Slow Lane Principle #4). Our impulse to blame people also distracts us from investigating what caused these setbacks in the first place. Did the rejection signal a valuable learning moment to refine our ideas? Or was it unintended, produced by a zombie system, something broken buried deep inside our bureaucracies? I proposed that even at our most vulnerable, we should try to stay open-minded enough to uncover what is broken, even if it is hard to find.

My journey, to tackle public procurement, gave us the third perspective, an idea on how we can turn around such a zombie system, that keeps producing the arbitrary rejections experienced by Mark and many others. It is easy for us to overlook bureaucratic systems like public procurement because they appear to be so far removed from the people we are trying to help. And yet, they are worth fixing because they have such a big impact on our lives. Procurement plays a role in almost all the stories so far: it produces the probation services in the UK, decides who does waste collection in Peru or how Sefton provides supported living services, and determines whether infrastructure ends up serving blind people in Chicago or slum dwellers in Caracas. If we stay alert, and creative to spot opportunities, we can set our mind to transform these systems. Collectively, we can flip them, from being a barrier to becoming an enabler of progress (see Story #14).

Easing the Pain

Our road to change was always going to be a bumpy ride. What the Slow Lane forces us to remember, is that the stakes are much higher for people who come from the periphery of our dominant power structures. Some setbacks will be useful, whilst others will be arbitrary and humiliating. In the case of Albina Ruiz, the setback in her first attempt to pass national legislation to protect Peru's recyclers was useful in that it led her to refine her strategy. Instead of speaking for the recyclers, she went on to help them to take a seat at the negotiating table. They won the law for themselves, and brought the movement another step closer to the Slow Lane Principles (see Story #5). But other setbacks, like the seemingly pointless rejection experienced by User Voice, are deeply traumatic for those involved.

What is our contribution to the experience of people who are working up the courage to act. Will they experience our actions as encouragement, or another form of rejection?

People in power should adapt their behavior to avoid such trauma. Many public leaders, for example, treat social movements like not startups coming in to pitch an idea. This can be a fatal mistake when you deal with people who lived experience of a social injustice, who may distrust people in power, and who may still be building up the courage to speak up or propose change. Unlike startups, they cannot fail and walk away from their lives. Nor will they pivot to something new. If nothing else, leaders in the UK Department of Justice should have recognized that User Voice wasn't pitching a solution, but was a community made up of ex-offenders, their families, and criminal justice professionals offering a new path forward. What User Voice needed most, was to be heard and to be given a real chance to make a contribution. The source of the pain wasn't so much the actual rejection, but the way it was delivered. Listening would have gone a long way to signal respect (and avert a disastrous reform effort).

A week ago, I received an email from Greg, a reader of the Slow Lane, about my post about Chicago's traffic signals. He pointed out that zombie systems aren't limited to government, but can be found producing irrational outcomes in any large bureaucracy – in government, business, investment, education, philanthropy. I agree, and many Slow Lane movements will struggle with zombie systems in business or elsewhere. I mention Greg's comment here, to take it a step further. Even if we are not in a formal position of power, we should be mindful that all around us, people may think about stepping out of the shadows for the first time, or try to change things. What is our contribution to their experience, are we rewarding their courage, or are we part of a rejection? How will they experience our actions – at home, in our business, in our community, or in government – as they work up the courage to act (see Story #11)?

If it Hurts, Build a Bridge

In the introduction to this book, I wrote about the damage caused by people in power who rush to quick fixes during crisis. The same applies to people in the Slow Lane. It is tempting to jump to quick conclusions when we experience rejection. I wrote about the risk of blaming public servants, but it applies to anyone. The Slow Lane is all about perspective. Change comes about when society reaches a tipping point, and when new norms take hold. That's why successful Slow Lane movements keep building bridges, even at times of crisis. Once the immediate satisfaction has worn off, blaming people does nothing to bring them into the fold. The idea of zombie systems helps us draw an important distinction, between broken bureaucracies, and the capacity for kindness and good intentions of the people who work in them. Blaming people simply misses the point.

If we can overcome our impulse to blame someone, we can get a double win. We can lay the foundations for our success by building bridges, and we can get started on the interesting task of looking for the real cause of rejection.

This is easier said than done. Slow Lane movements start because something is broken, and people in power are often part of the problem. Their Fast Lane ways leave many people behind (see Story #4). Successful journeys to change also activate people in power, by giving them a chance to learn, to develop empathy, to discover a different path. We can also help them remove obstacles. Albina showed us how a Slow Lane movement can create an environment, that makes it easy for powerful people to do what is right. Chicago failed to build traffic signals that serve the blind for fifty years, not because political leaders didn't want them, but despite their desire to help the disabled (see Story #13). It is only when we hold this contradiction – seeing terrible outcomes, and giving leaders the benefit of the doubt – that we can discover systems that are in urgent need of fixing, that don't work for anyone.

Broken systems can hide in plain sight, gigantic and invisible at the same time.

Own What's Broken

Enough about zombies. In this chapter, zombies were a metaphor for things that are broken despite people's good intentions. These broken systems can hide in plain sight, gigantic and invisible at the same time. Which makes it worthwhile to not take anything for granted, and investigate, understand, and re-imagine them. As I wrote the stories of Marburg, Chicago, and Citymart (see Story #14), I kept thinking about whose job it is to deal with underlying systems like public procurement. And how we can best organize this kind of change.

The fact that everyone called public procurement a 'government bureaucracy' told me something about their expectations. It immediately removed it from our lives, signalled a system bound by unchangeable rules, for experts only. Maybe that's how blind people in Chicago felt about their useless traffic signals. Unapproachable, bound by unchangeable rules and regulations. This label isn't inevitable. We don't refer to primary schools, community playgrounds, or care homes 'government bureaucracies'. We call them public services. We expect public services to work for us, and for everyone. And we have come to expect to be involved. That's why parents, teachers, and children have elected representation in schools. Or why Sefton invited people with special needs to define what independent living meant to them. Calling public procurement a public service was liberating. It motivates professionals to open up, but also gives outsiders permission to get involved.  

Peru's journey to sustainability and social inclusion was, to a large extent, one of recyclers claiming their right to have government services, and bureaucracies work for them, and with them.

The Slow Lane offers the tools we need to claim ownership, and reimagine even complex systems (see Story #7). Just think about what happened in Peru. Waste pickers have a say in creating the national waste and recycling policy, contribute to new public health and labor laws, and win municipal contracts for waste services. This kind of participation was unimaginable 35 years ago. When Albina started, waste-pickers were persecuted by the police and forced into informality. They had low self-esteem, and were deprived of healthcare. Their lives were too precarious to think about changing laws. Peru's successful journey to sustainability and social inclusion was, to a large extent, one of recyclers claiming their right to have government services, and bureaucracies work for them, and with them. What User Voice did in the UK is similar. They claimed a right for ex-offenders to contribute to the probation system because you cannot rehabilitate people without letting them participate. In both cases, the Slow Lane movements took the bold step of imagining a future in which people have the right to changing the systems that serve them. If it serves us, we should be part of fixing it.

Imposters Unite, to Fix It

I used 'Delightful Bureaucracy' in the title for the story of Citymart to challenge our preconceptions. We can imagine delightful community playgrounds, but struggle to imagine delightful bureaucracies like public procurement. Both are public services. As we tackle the hidden systems that undermine our common desire for positive change, we should allow ourselves to dream. Be audacious.

Over the course of ten years, Citymart reimagined public procurement as a public service through a big collaborative effort. Thirty thousand businesses and organizations, three thousands public servants, 135 governments, and dozens of non-profits, philanthropies, donors, funders, and sponsors came together to change the system, united by a simple idea. We were just small group of people facilitating this process, providing formats and impulses to help the community learn, and behave differently. Overall, no part was worth more than any other, all relationships mattered. It was only in this context that we could dare to ask if a $15,000 pilot might be enough to change a $6 trillion system.

Walking in on our bureaucracies to demand change is the most helpful thing we can do! What these systems really need, more often than not, is to reimagine their purpose, not their workflows.

We should not be afraid to invite ourselves to the party. Unless we show up, bureaucracies will continue to do what they have done for generations: call on secretive management consultants to streamline broken systems. The problem is, a more efficient broken system is still a broken system. What these systems really need, more often than not, is to reimagine their purpose, not their workflows. None of this should happen overnight. The Slow Lane is the ideal partner to make this happen. It brings urgency by having a lot to gain from this change, but also knows how to hold its urgency. And, importantly, it brings the joy of social imagination!

Feeling like an imposter is probably a sign that you're doing something right!

In short: All of us have a role to play in removing the worst of the bumps in the Slow Lane. We can go a long way to create an environment that encourages people from unlikely backgrounds to step up. When we experience rejection, we can overcome your impulse to pin blame on people and look for what is broken below the surface instead. And we can team up with others to make what is broken our own, and be no less audacious as we fix it.


Thank you for reading this chapter. It was always going to be one of the most complicated to write, but also dearest to my heart. Not just because it involves public procurement, but because I have lived through so many setbacks myself. My heart goes out to anyone who lives through what Mark and his team at User Voice endured. My next story will bring us to Navajo Nation, where we will open the chapter on healing democracy.

As always, please do share your thoughts and feedback.