I love the idea of moonshots.
There is something stirring and hopeful in the conception of setting a venture for change or accomplishment whose virtue lies primarily in its scale and boldness.
Mariana Mazzucato has taken the idea as far as anyone including in her latest book. In her framing, moonshots are not just big and bold, but need also to be wrangled into actual work whose impact is a function of discipline, direction and actually arriving. As Peter Drucker once pointed out, sooner or later all good ideas degenerate into the need for hard work.
As Mariana is fond of pointing out, the point of Kennedy’s original moonshot – literally, shooting for the moon – was not its daring rhetoric or sweeping vision, but the fact you could tell in the end if it happened. Armstrong and Aldrin, leaving aside the conspiracy that it was an eloborate hoax staged in some film set in the desert, walked on the moon. Mission accomplished.
Which is a good reminder that perhaps we need to juxtapose the mission and moonshot thing with this sense of accomplishment. And, in a nice piece of timing, that is the title of Michael Barber’s new book in his “deliverology” sequence.
The point of a mission is to arrive, to accomplish the stated purpose as opposed to basking in the grandeur of its unattainability.
Accomplishment takes discipline and several elements that Barber weaves into a discernible pattern of behaviour and disposition: bold ambition, curiosity, experiment, define your goal (precisely), prioritise/be myopic, be ready to suffer, don’t let the sceptics or critics get the better of you, be clear about your motivation, intelligence, a theory of change and so on. You’ll need to read the book (and so will I).
But here’s the thing.
Much of the mission debate about big change and reform is trained on a relatively narrow stretch of the policy landscape.
That includes, typically, manufacturing, science, technology and occasionally the environment (actually no, quite often now the environment and the climate emergency, given that we seem to have, by and large, turned that corner). Even more occasionally, you might seen something about health care, although that’s often conceived as another round in the perennially forlorn struggle to tame the venal instincts of the pharmaceutical industry.
What is much harder to find is evidence that the talk of missions and accomplishment, if we adopt that combination as our new mantra, including most recently in the Australian context with the launch of the CSIRO missions, ever gets around to the challenge of care and caring.
Where is the mission, for example, to completely renovate and even remake in many instances our aged care system? Ceaseless and mostly ineffective commissions and reviews tell the same story of systemic failure, abuse and neglect (always save the few stunning examples of “good” that any large enough system of endeavour will never fail to throw up).
That was certainly true of the latest Royal Commission, which made for pitiful and heart-breaking reading. The answer on this round of what has become a tired and dispiriting circus was $18 billion.
It’s a big number.
But does anyone have any realistic or justifiable confidence that $18 billion amounts to a mission with a sense of accomplishment that Mazzucato+Barber might promise? Do we really think we will end up, $18 billion later, with an aged care system that escapes the need for ritual royal commissions that tell us, again, what we know is wrong and set out an agenda we know, by and large, will fail to be accomplished?
And exactly the same might be said of disability, mental health, child abuse, domestic and family violence and aspects of the justice system, especially as it tangles with the lives of young people.
Where, I keep wondering, is the same energy, enthusiasm and fashionable fascination with “mission” reforms in science, technology and manufacturing that might be directed at remaking, for example, a health and care system with the same vigour, advocacy and resourcing?
When will a government surprise us and apologise for 20 previous inquiries into aged care before the latest Royal Commission, or perhaps the 32 inquiries into mental health between 2006 and 2012, and declare a moratorium on reviews and commissions, royal or otherwise.
Why, instead, couldn’t we fashion a set of big, bold moonshot missions to renovate our health system, the way we care for older people, how we offer people living with a disability the same chances for work, learning and life as everyone else, or how we can put all of the endlessly repeated advice about how to fix our chronically struggling mental health or child abuse systems into effect with a mission-driven, accomplishment hungry approach.
What if that became the dominant policy reflex for the next 10 years?
No more Royal Commissions.
Moonshots for care.
Mission + accomplishment.
At least it would make a good tee shirt.
Almost anywhere you look, if we truly want to fashion a world in which everyone gets a chance to lead their best lives not by accident but on purpose and with some level of confident predictability, our society and economy are grievously missing exactly the sense of mission and accomplishment for moonshot change.
Which is a shame.
In every sense.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge the focus on manufacturing and tech and science and the rest. Far from it. Big, tough work with huge payouts (and risks) that can properly be measured (and accomplished) with towering opportunities for national wealth and prosperity. Go for it. More power to all the elbows involved.
But we might keep two things in mind.
One is we have to start fashioning a new policy narrative for change that isn’t only focused on “commerce” (economics and jobs and productivity) and “climate” (a steady and accelerating fair transition to a clean, green economy and society) but on “care” too.
The evidence is in that how we care for each other, for our world and for the common good is an equal contributor to economic resilience and the sustainability we rightly seek. We are learning you can’t accomplish big, sustainable change in any single element of this troubling trifecta – commerce, climate and care – without advancing accomplishments in all of them. Which would render them all less troubling.
These things are increasingly indivisible.
At a country level, the pandemic revealed the way that all realms of society are interconnected. Evolving from a health crisis to an economic and education crisis, COVID-19 has led to rising social tensions, high unemployment, and failing health systems, even in high-income countries. In low-income and developing countries, inequality has increased across several realms.
Let’s stop referring to the “care” corner of this trifecta as the residual mendicant at which we’ll direct occasionally large and usually poorly aimed licks of money, often as a strategic afterthought at best.
And the second thing we might ponder is that putting care in the mix with commerce and climate isn’t beyond our means.
In a country minting billionaires in business and philanthropy at a vigorous clip, and as government rethinks how and why public funds are invested for long term resilience and shared prosperity, we could do this.
We have the means.
What we seem to lack is the imagination to train the big guns of moonshots, missions and the rhythms of patient, determined accomplishment on the way we care as a coequal piece of our future prosperity puzzle.
Now would be a good time to try, perhaps.