Political Patterns


Did it ever occur to you that many of the political actions seen today seem to follow a certain pattern? That those actions work so successfully because they are driven by a secret mechanism? I decided to do a little investigation of what I call political pattern as part of this terms design pattern seminar. I will start my list with a recent pattern mentioned by Bruce Schneier which is not only popular in the US.

Cover Your Ass (CYA)

It is a defensive pattern used by politicians, state employees or managers to prevent accusations from the general public in case something bad happened. CYA serves a single purpose: to kind of prove that actions had been taken to protect the public but alas - they could not prevent the disaster. A core principle of this pattern is that the actions taken are absolutely NOT targeted at preventing something. Their only purpose really is to show activity and compassion with respect to disaster prevention. A typical example is an unspecific warning of a possible terrorist attack. This warning binds police forces but does not do anything to really prevent an attack. Or as the german BKA said lately: the danger of attacks is abstract but high - whatever this is supposed to mean. But at least they were warning us! When the secretary of education in Baden-Württemberg warned of a possible assault at a school after vague hints and rumors he used CYA properly. Do not confuse the pattern with the "security theater" pattern below.

Security Theater

Political actions taken with the sole purpose of making us feel more secure than we really are. The actions have no effect whatsoever on real security. The bavarian secretary of internal affairs Beckstein is a master user of "security theater". His suggestions include the placement of military forces at train stations and other public places. Eighteen year old untrained solders equipped with automatic weapons in public places - not an idea that would make a sensible person make herself feel any safer - just the opposite. If "security theater" brings our feelings more in line with reality it is OK. Further examples: RFIDs for babies, tamper proof packaging, Legal protection through sec. Theater, Law and economic effects on everyday life. NASA: astronaut scandal and screening demands. FedEx refuses to ship empty containers: security theater at its finest (from Bruce Schneier's newsletter).


the icebreaker (foot-in-the-door)- get a foot in the door and wait for opportunities to push the door further open. This is a pattern that is especially useful in case of unpopular measures that are generally rejected by the public. In those cases it takes a special case to get the general mechanism installed. A typical example is secretary of internal affairs Schäble's repeated requests to allow the german military to shoot down airplanes - if they have been hijacked. Who could object against the use of military force when a plane that has been hijacked is steered towards the skyscraper filled to the brim with mothers and their children, their pets and the latest cute icebear cub from the Berlin Zoo? Ok, it might require some small adjustments to the first amendments in Germany - which forbid the use of military force inside Germany - a result of severe abuse in the past. But think about future uses once the changes have been installed: no more expensive police forces to protect Castor (nuclear waste) transports, use of cheap military force against demonstrations, strikes and so on...

Adjusting Screw (Stellschraube)

get a quantitive mechanism in place which you can adjust piece by piece. Typical examples are the sales tax or tolls for public roads (mehrwertsteuer, LKW-Maut). The public outcry might be large at first when you install the screw. Use the icebreaker pattern from above to ease installation and start with a moderate amount of revolutions of the screw. Remember - you can always raise the level later on. Don't be too shy to put in some good lies about the purpose of the screw (toll data are only used to collect money and are not available to the police). Use the icebreaker pattern to get rid of those limitations later (but we NEED to use toll data in case of paedophiles that have committed terrorist crimes and plan to do more..)

The god principle (Götze)

pick one factor of many and use it to explain everything. Stick to it by all means for a couple of years and then drop it quickly. Replace it with a different god principle. (often used in economics, e.g. in outsourcing, shareholder value etc.). If people question the one-dimensionality of your approach make it clear that everything else (e.g. using a mix of methods and explanations) simply is a sign of an unscientific approach.


divide and rule by manipulating your underlings (also called pit-bull education) Some useful mobbing included. A typical example: You start as a new top manager within an IT department and you notice that two managers reporting to you seem to have a strong base of followers in their teams. In other words: they are popular with their people. Single out one of them and start pointing out the others deficiencies to him. Make it clear that he and yourself share the same low oppinion about the other sub-manager. This will put the manager that you singled out slowly but sureley into conflicting situations with the other manager But he won't worry about this - he knows that you are on his side. Once he has made enough enemies you start the second phase of the game. Now your former favourite is falling from grace: You start questioning his abilities repeatedly. A good approach is to invite HIS team members to meeting and ask him technical questions he cannot answer in front of his people. If he cannot find an answer you will ask his team members for answers and point out his deficiencies in public. This is a very humiliating process for the manager. But he won't get any help - you have made sure the the other manager is by now a sworn enemy of your previous favourite. This game can go on for three to four month and then your sub-manager will probably give up and quit. Then it is time to take care of the other sub-manager. This is a beautiful pattern which I learned from a former McKinsey employee..

Last-moment Blitz

Did you ever wonder how much some laws seem to change shortly before a vote by a parliament? In most cases these changes do damage to the general public and favour certain interest groups. Last-moment Blitz is how lobbyists change laws at the last minute of their preparation. It gives others no chance to respond or react (like members of parliament). And at the same time it avoids extended press coverage of lobbyist-interests and arguments (which always sound somehow lame and egoistic). This means it is a two prong strategy. Frequently used by members and organizations in the health care professions. Lately successfully applied at the so called health reforms

Blunt is beautiful

Don't be too shy to simply bend semantics a bit. Replace negatively loaded words with new terms. Don't say e.g "tax raise" - this is unpopular and sounds simply bad. Call it a "reform" - this sounds much better. A critical requirement for successful implementation of this pattern is to be absolutely consistent: do no longer use the old words at all!

Berlusconi Finish

Don't worry: you don't have to race bicycles to do a Berlusconi finish. Always make sure that in a discussion the guy representing your position gets the last word to the public. No matter what the previous speakers said: the last words are those that stick in the viewers mind. Easier if you control the media.

The long march

Just like software patterns sometimes are combined into a larger architecture political patterns need to be combined to achieve long term - unpopular - goals. e.g. to get germans involved in wars again. The pattern uses successfully the following other political patterns in that order: The good cause (humanitarian aid), the-others-are-calling-us (or "we can't help it" pattern) and ends with:"higher forces", "we cannot withdraw now", "approved by parliament" etc. This complex pattern has been beautifully executed over the last 25 years by several different governments in Germany.

Payback loop

Also known as Feedback loop, Double goal. It combines two goals into a feedback sytem where they re-enforce each other. The argument goes like this: "We need to fight terrorism in XYZ, this causes dangers of terrorism in germany,we need to stock up on weapons and spend more on the army. we need more internal control of our citizens." Use the "security theater" pattern to convince people of the urgency of your measures.

Super-savings Menue

A complex strategy/political architecture: a combination of patterns to achieve various goals. Blitzkrieg plus hidden baggage: Republican Cong. F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin did just that. In February 2005, he attached the Real ID Act to a defense appropriations bill. No one was willing to risk not supporting the troops by holding up the bill, and it became law. No hearings. No floor debate. With nary a whisper, the United States had a national ID.(Schneier)

Design Pattern training and education usually results in people's increased awareness of those patterns and the ability to recognize patterns when they are used. Let's just hope that we will recognize it when spin doctors use political patterns in the future.