Frontiers 2023 Going Further

How governments can achieve complex goals

Professor Iain Alasdair MacLeod was an outstanding clear thinker, designer, researcher and teacher, who highlighted the importance of character and personal values in good engineering design and carried this forward into insights into system planning for the betterment of society as a whole. His clarity of thought and depth of insight brought to his presentations the freshness of the sea air of his native Islay. He was a much appreciated speaker at Orkney International Science Festival and his talk this year would have been about the application of engineering principles to political decision-making, but a tragic accident led to his death in June. An insight into his thinking can be seen from this article he wrote in 2021 about the system planning to achieve complex goals in public life. He looked at the factors that led to the success of the Vaccine Task Force and the resulting lessons provided.

We talk of processes being ‘engineered’, for instance ‘business re-engineering’. This does not mean that the work is carried out by engineers but it does imply the use of a special ways of operating. Figure 1 shows some of the attributes of an engineered process.

These attributes are first of all discussed in relation to their recent use by a Government task force.

The UK Vaccine Task Force

At the time of writing (February 2021) it is clear that, on the basis of deaths per head of population and effect on the economy, the UK Government response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been very poor compared with other nations. However, using the metric of rate of UK vaccinations, the UK is doing very well in comparison with other nations. What makes the difference? The Government appointed a Vaccine Task Force (VTF) that masterminded the roll-out. Here is a list of quotes from this article in The Times that illustrate relationships between the attributes in Figure 1 and the way that the VTF operated:

1. “Quickly Netty England fired off an email to contacts at businesses — including Oxford Biomedica, Cobra Biologics and Fujifilm — which she knew had vaccine-manufacturing capability and expertise.”  Competence, networking

2. “By Monday evening we had a consortium which was made up of companies that, in normal times, would be competitors,” she said. “We had them all working together.”   Collaboration

3. “The task force pulled in industry and scientific experts to expedite the search for the vaccines that would cut the death toll and lead society back to some kind of normality.”  Competent, multidisciplinary grou

4. “The unit’s success can be attributed in large part to the fact it was run by a small, tight-knit group of people who knew each other, knew what they wanted and knew how to go about getting it.”  Competence, collaboration, trust

5. “The task force chairwoman was Kate Bingham, 55, a biochemist turned venture capitalist who has spent decades delivering the investment that turns research into new life-saving drugs.” Leadership 

6. “Clive Dix and Kate Bingham challenged the status quo — they showed how to make decisions at speed and at risk within the public sector framework.”  Leadership

7. ”They said let’s talk again on Saturday and the Novavax people nearly fell off their chairs,” said an official. “In their experience no one in any government anywhere in the world had ever offered to meet on a Saturday.”  Commitment

8. “…the task force whittled down a shortlist of 23 potential vaccines to the handful they judged would work safely and be ready first.  Critical thinking, test solutions, use option analysis

9. “Officials were saying ‘the minister likes the look of Moderna’ but the task force was adamant that Biontech would be ready first — they were right,” said an adviser.”  Governance

10. “Insiders say much credit in navigating the contract talks is due to Madelaine McTernan, 45, a former City lawyer seconded to the task force from UK Government Investments.”  Competence in depth

11. “One industry secondee who has now left the task force said the return to business as usual was inevitable: “How long can you keep having an external group sitting in BEIS but with huge autonomy and direct access to the top?   Governance

12. “The military ‘can do’ approach was reinforced by…”  Ethos As far as I know, no member of the task force was a qualified engineer.

I now briefly discuss some features of the attributes.

The attributes of an engineered process

The attributes of Figure 1 represent a limited set of those used in engineered processes but I believe that they are crucial to success in situations of complex uncertainty.


Disciplinary competence is the ability to carry out specific tasks. See quotes 1,4,7 and 10.

When you have a difficult problem to solve, having people who ‘know where to put the chalk mark’ is of great advantage.

Where to make the chalk mark

An American manufacturer had a chief engineer who was retired early because he did not have much work to do. Their machinery broke down and no one could identify the fault. The chief engineer was asked to advise. He put a chalk mark on a gearbox and said: “Replace that.” This was done and the machinery ran smoothly again. The engineer submitted a bill for $50,000. The firm responded “£50,000 for making a chalk mark!” The engineer then submitted a new bill: “For cost of chalk: 50 cents; for knowing where to mark it:  $49,999.50.”

A task force needs people within deep competence within its ranks and must call them in as advisers when needed. Ability to identify top experts is an important issue that depends on networking (not listed in Figure 1 but evident from the article).

A task force also needs breadth of disciplinary competence – the Vaccine Task Force had specialists in vaccines, manufacturing, law, etc.

Ethos and critical thinking

Ethos is about the principles that guide actions, the culture under which the organisation operates. It is of extreme importance when working with complex uncertainty.

Critical thinking is the core issue in ethos. A critical thinker is a person who is constantly looking for and adopting principles that will lead towards successful outcomes. The members of a task force must be critical thinkers. Principles used by critical thinkers include:

a. Always challenge and test proposed solutions; expect your ideas to be challenged; seek to have your ideas challenged and be prepared to change your mind. Suggestions for making improvements from all persons involved in the enterprise should be welcomed rather than being strongly resisted as often happens. Quote 8 illustrates the use of option analysis that is the basic strategy in solution testing.

b. Treat failures as learning opportunities. An engineered process is focused on eliminating faults but when innovating, mistakes are to be expected. They need to be actively identified and eliminated.

c. Look at past successes for ideas for improvement but do not assume that what worked in the past in a similar context will necessarily work in the current context.

d. Adopt a constant drive to improve processes.

e. Adopt a positive approach to the control of risk.

f. Work to an engineered plan, i.e. to a plan that adopts the attributes of Figure 1.

Collaboration and commitment

Collaboration: Quote 2 illustrates the importance of collaboration. Deep collaboration within a task force, and with all contributing parties, is essential.

Commitment: While advice needs to be sought widely, it is important that those who make proposals are disinterested in the outcomes i.e. that they are not influenced by consideration of personal advantage.

The 1926 UK Electricity Act required that ‘Electricity Commissioners’, who formed a task force to transform the way electricity was produced and delivered, could not own any investments in the companies involved. This was a very important clause in the Act because, when making proposals for action, it is very difficult for people to put aside considerations that may affect their livelihoods.

Commitment to the goals of a project by the core team is dependent on such ethos. Quote 7 gives another example of commitment.


Quotes 5 and 6 show the importance of leadership. Figure 1 shows ethos as an attribute of competence but also as an attribute of leadership. Leaders must ensure that the ethos of the team is appropriate to the context and that all involved adopt it. This is of paramount importance in the success of any organisation. 


The system by which entities are directed and controlled.”

A task force needs to have an appropriate level of delegated authority to achieve its goals. Clients should let a task force get on with its work and not micromanage it – but must monitor performance and take action if the performance is inadequate. The client must act in collaboration with the task force in seeking to achieve the goals. The client for the Vaccine Task Force consisted of government ministers. In Quote 9, it is noted that a minister had his own idea about which vaccine should be used. He had the authority to overrule the proposal from the VTF but wisely accepted their recommendation. Clients may require proposals from a task force to be reconsidered but should never overrule them with untested solutions.

The relationship between the client and the task force is often a critical issue in engineered processes.

Government policy

The article in The Times describes a context on which to model future success when seeking to achieve complex goals. The Government must take advantage of this experience to learn from successes and from mistakes. It needs to adopt engineered processes, use of which will significantly improve the likelihood of successful outcomes.

There is much anxiety in society that the response to the pandemic is diverting effort away from the goal of reducing CO­2 emissions. That a task force must be appointed to use engineered processes for shaping energy policy is manifest.

Several of the talks given by Iain MacLeod to the Orkney International Science Festival in recent years are available online, including Critical Thinking (2021) and Uncertainty, Education and the Power of the Human Brain (2022) in which he argued that a key ability in human affairs is to successfully manage complex uncertainty, with human brain specially suited to the challenge, and much better at it than any AI yet developed. This, he said, has implications for education, which traditionally teaches us to think about known situations and apply known techniques to solve them. Instead, he said, education has to expand into the territory where human brains can demonstrate some of their greatest intellectual potential – coping with situations where there is a complex mix of uncertainty and finding a solution that can carry us through.

About the author

Iain Alasdair Macleod

Iain MacLeod was for many years Professor of Structural Engineering at Strathclyde University, and continued to be very active in retirement. He was Past President of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland; Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers; and a member of Glasgow JMCS and the Scottish Mountaineering Club and Clyde Cruising Club. “He had a real passion for many things – engineering, education, ideas, his family, friends, piping, mountains, the sea,” wrote the Institution of Engineers in Scotland website.
"He was known and will be missed by so many.”