Solving society’s problems – bringing engineering experience to the Dáil
15 November 2016
Broadcasters like Claire Byrne and Jeremy Paxman may tell you that politicians are difficult to interview, but not Stephen Donnelly, independent TD for the Wicklow constituency and former member of the Social Democrat party. That said, he did give a one-word answer to my first question. ‘How do you go from engineering to the Houses of the Oireachtas?’ I asked.
‘Circuitously,’ he answered. He elaborated, then, on the route he took after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from University College Dublin (UCD) in the late 190s, but I first wanted to ask him about his interest in politics.
‘When was first time…even if it was as a child, or whatever…that you said to yourself, “I could do that.”’ ‘Do what?’ ‘Be a public representative.’ ‘Oh, never.’ He laughed. ‘You mean you only decided before you ran?’
‘There was a Monday Six-One news on RTÉ and Ajai Chopra [head of the International Monetary Fund’s mission to Ireland during the banking crisis] and his two guys were filmed walking down Grafton Street. I’d been giving out about this stuff for years, saying, “We’re causing the IMF [to come here]; we’re causing this. And we’ve got to stop.”
‘It was at that moment I said, “Okay, I’m going to have to do something.” I decided I’d get involved. I thought I may be an advisor to someone, you know, but then I was at a rugby game a few weeks later and one of the guys said to me, “Just run. Run yourself; just go in.” And that stayed with me.’
‘Is it not incredibly difficult to build the necessary support, though?’ I asked. ‘I mean, how did you manage to do that in less than a year?’ ‘Five weeks.’ ‘Five weeks?’ It was my turn to laugh. ‘We ran a five-week campaign from when the election was called.’ ‘But…how?’
‘I have a mate, who I was with in the Harvard Kennedy School [in 2008, Donnelly completed a master’s degree in Public Administration in International Development from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government], who ran Obama’s campaign in Toledo, Ohio. He was the only person I knew who had anything to do with politics. So we snuck him into a video-conference room in DC and we snuck into a video-conference room in London, and we had this clandestine meeting where I told him what I was going to do.
‘He said, “Look, you’ve no organisation, no money, no manifesto, no public profile and no hair. You have absolutely no chance of getting elected. So you have to change the rules of the game.” And this is what I kept saying to my team, “If we run the best traditional general election campaign in the country, we’ll definitely lose.” So we had to change the rules, and we did.
‘We did a bunch of stuff differently. We used social media in ways it had never been used before. We raised volunteers in ways other people didn’t raise volunteers. We used videos where I explained some of the IMF stuff, and people weren’t doing that. And then I was lucky. I was kind of the right profile at the right time in a constituency where there was space for someone to break through. And I came in fifth; I scraped in.’
Reverse-engineering a typical election campaign
On completion of his BE, Stephen Donnelly worked as a product designer in a campus company with Prof Gerald Byrne, who was also in the room with us that day. Prof Byrne, Dean of Engineering in UCD, had, in fact, set up this interview at the end of a series of meetings with key research personnel in the university.
After working with Prof Byrne, Stephen went from UCD to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to do a master’s degree. On returning to Dublin, he broke his back sailing and could not work for over a year. After this lay-off, a chance conversation at an engineering jobs-fair led him to McKinsey and a new career direction into management consultancy. It was clear that he used both of these hats – the engineer and the consultant – to plan his implausibly swift election campaign.
‘Myself and two friends sat down in a room with a whiteboard and said, “We’re project managers; this is a project; how do you do it? There’s the target, let’s reverse-engineer it. We’ve got to hit this many doors. We’ve got to do this; we’ve got to do that.” But we had no idea. We were saying things like: “What do we need? We need posters. Where do we get them? We need a photographer? Does anyone have a camera?” It was at that level, initially.
‘We worked really hard, though, night and day, and a team of quite brilliant people came together. We had a growing group of volunteers, which let us knock on a lot more doors than would have been expected. It was very much a team victory, without a shadow of a doubt, I just happened to be the candidate on that team. And there was an awful lot of luck.
‘For example, I got on Vincent Browne. What happened there was, a well-respected journalist was on and Vincent was saying, “Is there anyone out there?” and this guy said, “There’s this young fella in Wicklow who’s probably worth a look.” So they rang me and said, “Do you want to come on?” We had two hours’ notice.’
The story got better.
‘I’d been told to buy a new suit, and someone drove out from Wicklow with the suit and we had an iron in the back, and then we got into this beat-up car and literally ran in. But we couldn’t find the place. TV3 was in an industrial estate in Ballymount at the time, so I almost missed it. I got there, though, and after having make-up put on me for the first time in my life, I was suddenly sitting in a television studio looking at Vincent Browne, Mary-Lou MacDonald and Alan Shatter.’
Donnelly laughed. ‘I was so nervous that I couldn’t speak for the first five minutes. I didn’t say a word. But then it went really well. And the public reaction was very good.’ ‘What gave you the confidence to talk?’ I asked.
‘Well, Shatter and MacDonald are both very smart, capable people, but when it came to IMF economics, what they were saying didn’t fit with my understanding of what the IMF does. So eventually I said, “Vincent, hang on a second. This isn’t how the IMF thinks about the world. And this isn’t how we should think about them.”
‘One of the big messages I put out there was: there is no bailout happening here. Ireland is not being bailed out. And I got laughed off the stage. It took a long time to convince people that you need to follow the money. A bailout suggests we were being helped in some way; we weren’t being helped; we were being stitched up. And those kind of things took time to explain.’
Putting engineering experience to use
It was time that Stephen Donnelly got. He regained his seat after a poll-topping re-election earlier this year. But I was interested to find out what aspect of Deputy Donnelly’s engineering experience informs the way he does things now?
‘I use it in exactly the same way I did in McKinsey and everywhere else. It’s the ability to deconstruct complex problems, solve the individual pieces and put it all back together. And it’s best illustrated by a problem I remember from my degree. There was a jet fighter pulling out of a turn and it’s doing this,’ – a gesture with one hand – ‘and it’s basically going that way,’ – a gesture with the other – ‘and the question was: calculate the force exerted on the engine casing by the turbine.
‘I looked at that and thought: that’s unsolvable. One of my fellow students, who’s an absolute genius, sat me down and said you can isolate all of the movements in four axes: X, Y, Z and the spinning of the engine.
‘He broke the equation out over two pages, solving each individual piece, adding them back together and then you actually got the answer. I thought, that’s genius! The fact that someone worked out how to do that. So, when you’re looking at organisational design, you have to be able to deconstruct the problem, deconstruct the system.
‘The stuff I was doing in MIT was large-system manufacturing. A Boeing 747, for example, has about a million pieces, so (A) how to you get your head around managing that and (B) how do you figure out what the important bits are? Back in the day, the guys in the Boeing plant in Phoenix were telling me that when the 737s came off the production line, they were plus or minus one seat.’ (laughs).
‘They were plus or minus a foot and a half, and they said, because every single component is built with a tolerance, when you stack thousands of them against each other, you actually get massive variances. So when you can fit an extra seat in the back of a passenger plane, is that alright? You have to understand the system to be able to say. So, for me in McKinsey, the stuff I love, complicated problems and systems, and breaking them down and looking for patterns…engineering helped there.
‘And then in politics, one of the nice bits of feedback I get consistently from people is, “We love the way you explain complicated stuff without patronising us. There’s nothing missing from your explanation.” I have to understand it as an engineer understands stuff.
‘When I was studying economics in Harvard, I was working with really smart economics graduates. They’d say things like, “You can increase the money supply.” And I’d say, “That doesn’t mean anything to me. What do you mean increase the money supply?” And they’d say, “Well, the Federal Reserve System would do this and that…” and I’d say: “No, that doesn’t mean anything, either.”
‘I’d say, “Take me through what that means. Literally. Does someone go to a computer? Do they print out money? Is it physical cash that goes to the banks?” And that’s also true of the vulture-fund stuff that’s going on at the moment, or the IMF. I still think like an engineer and engineers are very good at saying, “I don’t get that. That doesn’t make sense to me. Show me.” Engineers understand stuff in a very visceral way.’
Changes to engineering education
As a last question, I asked Stephen about the engineering education that he clearly valued. Was there anything in the engineering degree he would change? Characteristically, he wasn’t short of an opinion.
‘Yeah, there’s loads. There are loads I’d change. One of the things I found frustrating – although this may be different, now – was that there was an answer to everything. So, on the one hand you were being taught this incredibly powerful method of problem solving, or system deconstruction, but on the other hand, pretty much everything you were being taught, someone had worked out an answer to.
‘It’s fine teaching people, say, Bernoulli’s equation, but you should also force them to think about stuff for which there is no answer. Looking back, I was frustrated because you weren’t really being asked to think. You were being asked to learn and they’re fundamentally different things.’
‘So,’ I asked, ‘in that debate about whether engineering degrees should be more specific or more general, you would have liked more transferable-skills subjects?’
‘Clearly, based on what I ended up doing, I had more interests than engineering, so I’d love to have been able to go wider. Like Philosophy. I think engineers should study philosophy because engineers, together with architects, shape the built world. And that’s a huge responsibility. I think philosophy would help with that, in thinking about society.
‘I’ll give you a perfect example. A female friend of mine told me that she was really frustrated because she was moving something and it was too heavy. And she said, “It’s really annoying as a woman in our society, that stuff is designed for men to move.” So I tested this with one or two other women and they said “Yeah, stuff is too heavy.” They’d get their husband or father to move it, or whatever. And that’s a major societal failing on the part of engineers, but we’re not trained to think like that.
‘We’re now hard-wired, for example, to design disabled access into things. Why weren’t we doing that fifty years ago? There were people in wheelchairs fifty years ago. One of the reasons is because the people doing the design weren’t philosophically or socially trained to do so.’
Maybe, I thought, this accounts for the dearth of engineers in politics, but then Stephen told me something about the politicians, not engineers, that was fascinating.
‘One of the big learnings for me on entering the Dáil, was that I planned to work really hard and construct well researched, footnoted, logical arguments, and there is some merit and weight given to those, but not as much as I thought. There was one senior minister, a really sharp guy, who was asking me, early on, how I was getting on ― what I thought, what I’d found, what was different. And I said, “I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the calibre of people in here.” And he said, “Yes, but you’ll find that TDs hide their intelligence because it doesn’t go down well on the doorsteps.” And I thought, well, that needs to change.’
More engineers needed in politics
‘You’ve got to have your facts right, obviously,’ he continued, ‘but then you’ve also got to figure out a way to get your message out there, and you also have to have back channels to the decision makers, and…and…and.’ He hit the table on each ‘and’. ‘But yet, on my white board at work, today, I have the charity regulator and we’re looking at the tax avoidance by the vultures.
‘This is a €20 billion opportunity for the country; it’s bigger than Apple. So I have my decision trees and it’s all structured. I first learnt that here, under Gerry (Prof Byrne) in UCD, and then in McKinsey and in the Kennedy School. First and foremost, I still think like an engineer.
‘I’d love to see more of an outlet for creativity in engineering education. It may be there now more than it was, but give people open-ended, unsolvable questions. If I put my political hat on, I think we need more engineers in politics. It’s a quantum leap, though, because you’re not trained to think about society or, at least, we weren’t. So, the more public-facing, social-facing stuff that you can pull their young minds into, the better. And then they may think of becoming a politician or an advisor to a politician, because they’re thinking about society.’
It was time for me to be less ‘social-facing’, though. I could have asked many more questions – and Stephen would have answered them, as he was in flying form. But it was after 7pm and I knew he had later to be at a function for his team in Bray and had to go home to help put his children to bed in the meantime.
He was enthused, though, by the few hours he had spent back in his old university; I could see that. ‘It recharges the batteries to connect with people who are doing stuff and brainstorm new ideas. It’s very important to get away from Leinster House on a regular basis.’ Maybe, though, as he said himself, more engineers need to go the other way.
Anyone for office?
Barry Brophy is an engineer, lecturer in technical communications at UCD and writer.
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