Initiative fatigue – is it unique to the public sector?

I worked in the public sector for a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s and, consequently, I know only too well what “initiative fatigue” is. It refers to the continual application of faddy-feeling campaigns that staff often feel are ineffective or even counter-productive. In my time in the Civil Service there seemed to be a rolling program of “what next?” Examples within the 1990s included TQM, Investors in People, Chartermark, EFQM, Customer First, M.A.D (make a difference) ideas and NVQs. These initiatives were always launched with a gusto that never really had a very convincing feel to it. Consequently once you’d been through your second or third rotation you found yourself saying “here we go again”. Hence “initiative fatigue”

On my way into the office this morning I heard the term again during a Radio 4 interview. It related to some critical comments from inspectors relating to the London Crown Prosecution Service’s fondness for initiatives or, more to the point, on spending money on initiatives with dubious measurable returns. Here’s the BBC website summary of that story. At one point in the interview it was even mentioned that new processes had been introduced to prevent the introduction of any new initiatives! The initiatives were seen to be so damaging they had banned them!

I found that quite funny

Anyway, after I’d stopped chuckling to myself it suddenly occurred to me that I had only ever heard the term “initiative fatigue” applied within the public sector (and only then in the UK). That made me wonder whether it was just me, and the term was in fact in common use in the commercial sector and I’d just not encountered it, or whether it was uniquely a “public sector thing”

So I thought I’d post it up and invite comments on the subject. I’d be really interested to hear of any examples where the term “initiative fatigue” is in use in the commercial sector, plus I’d also love to hear specific and, if possible, humourous examples of how barmy you’ve seen it get. Let’s hear it, and please, name names …

initiative fatigue Initiative fatigue   is it unique to the public sector?

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2 Responses to “Initiative fatigue – is it unique to the public sector?”


  1. It certainly happens in the larger corporate world here in Australia. I did a lot of consulting among the top 150 companies in the 90s and there were heaps of them. Not often called initiatives though. A range of names were employed (projects, directions, etc) but they were usually colloquially called 'management's current fad'. Cannot name names I'm afraid. Common themes: big launch and faddy name Lots of assurances that 'this is what we are now (a learning organisation, customer focused, lean and opportunistic, customer-driven, values-based etc etc... ) and this isn't Just Another Passing Fad. Lots of hoo-rah communication messages, perhaps some seminars (compulsory). Gimmicky give-always - the sloganed coffee mug, the mouse may, the poster, the tie pin or pencil holder Dwindling gradually away... Until..... the Next Big Launch! After seeing a few of those (from outside or inside the company) I far better understood that the more wearied among them sighed at each launch and said (aloud or sotto voce, depending upon their assessment of the security of their job) oh, here we go again. Wonder how long this one'll last?

  2. Shaun says:

    Thanks Jane. This is really interesting. Quite bizarre that so many repeatedly tread the path of tried and tested failure. You have described virtually to a tee the common DNA that they all seem to share. Once something starts looking like a duck, walking like a duck and quacking like a duck, people will naturally make the obvious assumption.

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