The Blunders of our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. Oneworld Publications, September 2013.
This is a must read book for anyone interested in British public affairs, writes Prof Colin Talbot. It is seminal, not so much for the insight it offers – much of what it says has been said before – but in the way it brings together in one place the list of catastrophic blunders of government and their causes. There is something for everyone with an interest in government and governing here.
Politicians of the right will undoubtedly highlight the failures of government reported in this book and try to position it in the “private good, public bad” narrative of neoliberalism.
They will of course ignore the many good things King and Crewe have to say about government. Politicians of the left will undoubtedly latch on to the critique of existing institutions and power structures within the British state and focus on the need to ‘modernise’ government.
It is perhaps a tribute to the balanced nature of their analysis that King and Crewe’s opus will appeal to a wide spectrum of political opinion (and its quite a good marketing ploy too).
The book’s only major weakness is it’s failure to provide anything other than a shopping list of possible causes of failure, without offering any proper way of structuring them. With a dozen possible ‘independent variables’ to choose from, they offer no real guide to understanding the dynamics of failure in a systematic way. But more of that later.
First, the blunders. The list is indeed formidable:
- the Poll Tax that cost the country millions, caused riots and helped to bring down a Prime Minister;
- the reform of pensions that led to the, until then, biggest mis-selling scandal in British finance (now dwarfed by others like PPI);
- the Child Support Agency and the bungled policy of trying to make absent parents (mostly fathers) pay for their kids rather than the state;
- Britain’s joining of, and subsequent undignified and extremely costly exit from, the European Exchange Rate mechanism (precursor of the Euro);
- “Cool Britannia” and the Millennium Dome;
- The great training robbery of ‘Individual Learning Accounts’;
- Tax credits and the scandal of epic under and overpayments by HMRC that cost probably billions;
- Unrecovered assets – the fiasco of the criminals asset recovery policy that failed to deliver;
- Farmers missing subsidies – how the rural payments system collapsed;
- IT – need I say more?;
- Down the tubes – how the then deputy PM and Chancellor managed to screw-up the private finance deal for London Underground;
- And finally, the long and sorry tale of the attempt to introduce ID cards.
This list all occurred in the past 30 years or so, and under both Conservative or Labour governments (and sometimes continued under both). Some will dispute this or that inclusion or exclusion – for example at a recent meeting at The University of Manchester Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and chair of the influential PAC, said she thought the Individual Learning Accounts inclusion was a bit unfair because although it had been a mistake it was one that was quickly recognised and pulled.
It is when the authors get on to the “why” question that the book gets really interesting. They offer 12 types of explanations which they say appear in different combinations in each case, but which seem to underlie these catastrophic failures. They divide their causes into two types – ‘human error’ and ‘systemic failures’.
Human errors include the failure of politicians and senior civil servants to really appreciate how the majority of the population actually live – what the authors call ‘cultural disconnect’. This leads to formulating policy with a mental model of everyday living that reflects policymakers lives.
So for example the Poll Tax, Child Support or Tax Credits policies utterly failed to take into account just how unstable many people’s lives are. This is closely linked to ‘group think’ – the tendency for a group of similar and like-minded individuals to exclude other options and dismiss problems. Allied to this is ‘prejudice’ (or sometimes ideology) – politicians especially who have a preconceived idea of ‘what works’ and are willing to ignore any evidence to the contrary.
A fault more often attributed to civil servants is ‘operational disconnect’ or the ‘implementation problem’ – policymakers with little or no conception of how front-line services and policies in action actually work (or don’t). (This was a principle concern of the recent Civil Service Reform plan). And finally, there are the cases where ‘panic, symbols and spin’ become the actual purpose and driving force of policy – the classic ‘something must be done’ reaction that often leads to bad policy decisions.
Systems failures, as the name suggests, are more about how the structures and processes of government hinder sensible policy-making. The first they list is ‘the centre cannot hold’, the long touted view that the shear complexity and volume of decision making that confronts modern governments creates a huge problem of coordination and processing. British government’s structural arrangements of semi-federal ministerial fiefdoms does not help, and lack of capacity in the centre (PM and Treasury) makes this worse, as does the tension between the latter two great institutions state (the Prime Minister’s Office and HM Treasury).
The second problem is what they call ‘musical chairs’ – the tendency for both Ministers and senior Mandarins to frequently change their jobs, so that the senior team in any Ministry rarely lasts for more than a couple of years. This problem compounds another – ‘ministerial activism’. As most Ministers can expect to be in post for no more than one or two years, they have a very little time in which to make their mark with some signature policy or reform. This encourages over-rapid decision-making and repeated reform initiatives. As most serious reforms take 4-5 years at least to bed down, Ministers and Mandarins have often moved on, along with the policy agenda, long before anything has been achieved (or not).
Two further linked problems make this worse – the ‘lack of accountability’ of the executive part of government in our system and the corresponding issue of a ‘peripheral parliament’. Both of these have been the subject of much discussion in recent years, especially since the so-called Wright Reforms of the Select Committee system in Parliament and intensive debates about accountability of both Ministers and Mandarins to parliament. It remains to be seen how much this really changes.
One final, oft neglected, issue is what the authors call ‘asymmetry of expertise’. Simply this means that senior policymakers – politicians and civil servants – are often far less well-informed or qualified than the people they are dealing with – whether in the private, voluntary or public sectors. This has especially become a problem with the grow of the ‘public service industry’ where, as Stephen Wilks has argued on this blogsite, there is a massive asymmetry between the providers and those purchasing them.
I have some quibbles with this shopping list of causes – not with the items listed, I think all of them are contributory factors. My problem is that there is far too little attempt to use the impressive collection of data and analysis in this book to look for patterns of causation that might help us understand better what sort of blunders are caused by what combinations or configurations of factors. Without such understanding attempts at reform might focus on the wrong things.
There is also too little attention to the issue of what Alasdair Roberts has recently called ‘large forces’ – the big shifts in society, economy, technology and politics that force governments to confront new problems, or old problems in new ways. All the blunders in this book were (failed) responses to these ‘large forces’, where in other areas governments have done well confronting large scale change (see Chapter 2 of this volume).
Finally the authors suggest, by way of an overarching conclusion, that what characterises our British system of central government policy-making is a ‘deficit of deliberation’. It is simply too closed, too impetuous, too ill-thought through, too unaccountable and with far too few checks and balances to ensure ideas are ‘stress tested’ before they are rolled out. A conclusion I fully agree with.
This book should be read by all those interested in public affairs, but especially and probably compulsorily by those aspiring to high office whether in politics or the civil service. They just might learn something.