Paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 1, 2022

Over the last years, I’ve observed in a number of cases of policy making something that looked like “paying lipservice”, but upon closer analysis turns out to be something else. In order to effectively understand, evaluate and criticise the actions of those responsible for policies and leadership actions, it might be helpful to make a distinction between three modes in which policy-makers and leaders in groups might operate: paying lipservice, ticking boxes, and doing what it takes.

The policies/leadership actions I will describe could be in an organisation, in a local or national government, or any other instance in which someone is engaged in making decisions that affect a group. It might even be something that we can observe in some smaller or less formalised groups in which some people have authority/leadership responsibilities, such as parents in families.

How do “paying lipservice”, “ticking boxes”, and “doing what it takes” differ, and why could distinguishing between them matter?

If someone pays lipservice, they say that they support action or outcome X, but then do nothing to make X come about. Others might wait for action, the actions are promised for the future, but ultimately nothing is done (or only something pretty symbolic). Think of countries pledging to meet a target (for example, an emissions-reduction target, or donating to an international support fund), but then there is no action, or very little action. No boxes of “things that have to be done” can be ticked, since it is very clear that the promised actions were not taken.

What one would ideally want, is that if there is a broad agreement that X should be realised (to the extent that X is feasible), that those who have the responsibilities will do what it takes to realise X. Of course, if realising X would come at the cost of another highly valued goal Y, then we might accept, and consider it legitimate and justified, that X cannot be (fully) realised. But within those feasibility constraints, one must do what one can. The leader is responsible for the outcome, not merely for there being a process.

There is a third category of acting, in which the leader/responsible person declares to be committed to X, takes some explicitely announced and visible actions, but then doesn’t really do what it takes (and knows this, or should be able to know this, at least if they are honest with themselves). What the responsible person does, is to tick a number of boxes so that they can say that they tried their best to realise X, but in reality their main goal is to make sure that those who argued that X must happen are muted and disempowered in their advocacy for X. “Thicking the boxes” is thus a very insidious strategy: since on the face of it some actions are taken, and these are substantive enough to allow the leader/responsible persons to tick a box (and refer to that action when they need to justify themselves), it makes it much harder for critics to say that the policy-making is wanting or the leadership has failed.

So it matters to clearly see when a case is one of “ticking the boxes”, because those who employ that strategy do not want things to really or completely change (all the way up to realising X), either because they don’t really believe in X but don’t say so publicly, or because in the process of ‘doing what it takes’ some unpleasant truths about them might see the light of day, or because they are horrible bureaucrats who only want to be able to report to those controling them that they did what they had to do, but they don’t really care about the outcomes.

Examples of box-ticking acts are to make an official declaration and say that some committee will advice on what to do next, but then that committee is not given the means to do its work (or putting that committee together takes ages); or to make an official declaration about allocating funds but then to come up with all sorts of bureaucratic excuses why those funds are not yet being released; or, at a more meso/micro-level, to schedule an important meeting at a time when one knows that some people who should really be able to attend cannot make it; to organise a meeting to discuss some problems related to X but to do nothing to ensure that those who are key responsible figures who need to do something/change their behaviour for X to be realised will attend; to not share information with those who should have that information so that X can be realised; to underresource those who are tasked with realising X; to insufficiently support or otherwise demotivate those tasked with realising X so that there is a very high turnover rate of those hired to realise X; to allocate the task to realise X to a person who is not fit for the job but on paper might look to be a suitable person, and of whom one can expect that they will not do all it takes but merely silence those who advocate for X; to delay the actions that are needed to realise X (and constantly come up with excuses for delaying), until those who advocate X are so demoralised and exhausted that they resign in their advocacy, and so on and so forth.

There are many possible reasons why leaders/those responsible do not really want to have X. They might instead be interested in Z, which could be something that looks like X but doesn’t have the same qualities (such as in the case of eliminating discrimination or harassment in the workplace, one might only be interested in eliminating the worst forms that might make the organisation receive bad press, since deep down the leadership is most of all motivated by reputation-damage-controle). Or they might not at all be interested in X or anything approximating X, but only in protecting their authority and reputation (for example, in the case of parents in families or church leaders), or in not losing public support (for example, in the case of politicians dealing with a scandal who are only motivated by staying in power).

I’ve deliberately kept this quite abstract because I think these three modes of operating can be used in a wide range of contexts. I started to think about the distinctions between “paying lipservice”, “ticking the boxes” and “doing what it takes” after learning a lot about how universities deal with complaints of (sexual) harrassment and powerabuse in recent years (if you want to know more, I recommend Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!), as well as from what I’ve been learning recently in how the Dutch government responds to some harms it has inflicted on some groups of citizens, and the totally insatisfactory way in which they are trying to rectify and compensate for those harms. In both cases, anyone who looked closely enough or had a lot of (not always public) information could reasonably conclude that there has been a lot of “ticking the boxes” going on, rather than ‘doing what it takes’. But this could apply to other areas too, such as how the leadership in the Catholic church deals with priests who have abused children, and also how some governments respond to climate change.



Matt 08.01.22 at 2:17 am

This is nice and helpful. Another example of “ticking the box” might be, in states with a “dualist” approach to international law (at least common law countries, but maybe some others, too), signing an international treaty or agreement but then not “translating” that into domestic law, leaving it so that the agreement cannot be used “domestically” to enforce rights or compel action. Sometimes the reasons for this are bad, but understandable – the inability to get legislation through in a divided political system, for example. But sometimes there is just some other more basic failure to pass “domestic” legislation that would give any actual force or teeth to the treaty obligation, one that can’t be explained except in that there is a desire to not really make it opperative.


Fake Dave 08.01.22 at 7:59 am

This reminds me of the “failure to plan”/”planning to fail” distinction. Naiveté and cynicism may seem like polar opposites but they can be indistinguishable from the outside. Applying the principle of charity can be very helpful if someone really is misguided rather than malicious, but, past a certain point, it doesn’t really matter why someone is being obtuse or obstructive. The level of entitlement and self-importance it takes to be willing to play these games tends to render good intentions irrelevant.


John Quiggin 08.01.22 at 8:50 pm

An example I’m familiar with is University promotion processes. Service is usually box ticking, research is full commitment and teaching can be either commitment lipservice depending on the institution


Ebenezer Scrooge 08.02.22 at 6:54 pm

I made my living as a lawyer, and therefore was a specialist in box-ticking and lip service. Hey, it pays well.

Now that I’ve paid my lip service to cheap cynicism, I’d like to propose another reason for this kind of behavior. As social animals, we respond to both deontology and consequentialism: the right and the good. Sometimes they’re aligned, and sometimes they’re opposed. When they are opposed, we have to pick one, but still want to pay tribute to the other. The legalistic box-ticking approach–deontological rhetoric mastered by consequentialist minds–straddles the gap.

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