Review: The Blunders of our Governments

Peter Stern

The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, the result of four years research, is a major contribution to the discussion around some of the domestic legacies of both the Thatcher/Major and Blair/Brown governments.

The authors seek to both identify governmental blunders and ascertain what lessons can be drawn from them. In particular, they argue that: “There are far too many [blunders] … to be accounted for by random one-off sets of circumstances and they may instead have common origins.”

Because of their, generally, rather limited background and experience, politicians tend to underestimate the difficulties involved in introducing change, and be unaware of the methodologies that are available to help bring about change as efficiently as possible. Project management, first developed over fifty years ago, to deal specifically with the strategy and (implementation of) change, could have been adapted to administer the schemes described by the authors, and would, hopefully, have reduced the number of ‘blunders’.

One such method is PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environments), which until recently was ‘owned’ by the Office of Government Commerce, in the Cabinet Office, but is not mentioned in this book.

The authors define their understanding of the meaning of a ‘blunder’ as follows:

“An episode in which a government adopts a specific course of action in order to achieve one or more objectives and, as a result largely or wholly of its own mistakes, either fails completely to achieve those objectives, or does achieve some or all of them, but at totally disproportionate cost, or else does achieve some of them but contrives at the same time to cause significant amount of “collateral damage” in the form of unintended and undesired consequences. The costs and consequences of government blunders can be financial, human, political or some combination of all three.”

Part II, almost half the book, begins with a chapter on the poll tax and finishes with a chapter on the beginning and end of ID cards. In between these there are ten more chapters, each dealing with a particular blunder, except for chapter 11, which covers several ill-fated government IT systems.

A discussion of ‘human errors’ in part III is enlightening, including Chapters on: cultural disconnect, group think, prejudice and pragmatism, operational disconnect, and panic symbolism and spin. Often, the authors argue, these foibles – or several of them at once – “are all more pervasive in British government than is often realised.” As a result they affected the decision making processes that led to the greatest blunders in of the last three decades. And there was no plan B when things went wrong.

Part IV starts with a discussion in regard to the low size of the prime minister’s staff in comparison with that in other Westminster-model and western European countries. They suggest expansion of the Policy Unit, by the “importation of one or two sniffer-dogs… sniffing around [Whitehall] for blunders in the making”.

During this period, stemming from the can-do culture of Thatcher and Blair, officials could “ask questions, of course, but were discouraged from raising objections” so that “several of the blunders we describe undoubtedly resulted, at least in part, from the formidable combination of ministerial activism and official reticence.”

Even when things went wrong, the authors found that ministers’ careers were not adversely affected, writing that “despite the traditional doctrine of individual responsibility and lip service still paid to it, a deficit of accountability exists in the British system.”

The penultimate chapter on asymmetries of expertise is perhaps the most useful. Had the perpetrators of these blunders read one of the many books on project-management, the outcomes could well have been more positive. But as it is, “In recent decades some of UK governments’ contractual and project-management errors, resulting in soaring costs , long delays, administrative chaos, human misery and sometimes total failure to deliver, have been quite spectacular”. Indeed, it is not sufficient for politicians to have progressive policies; they also need to understand the methodologies which enable these policies to be efficiently implemented.

The coalition government response to this problem was to set up the Major Projects Authority (MPA)  within the Cabinet Office in 2011 which has now published two annual reports. There is a Government Projects Portfolio (GMPP) of 199 projects with ‘whole life costs’ of £488bn, spread over the various departments and monitored by the MPA, which maintains a ‘Delivery Confidence Assessment’ (DCA) of all projects in the GMPP, enabling attention to be focused across government where it is most required.

The DCA gives an overall summary of the state of a project, and is reported as a traffic light system ranging from green for the projects judged with the lowest risks to success, to red for those projects facing the most serious challenges.

It should also be noted that the Labour party has commissioned a review of long term infrastructure planning by Sir John Armitt, and which calls for a National Infrastructure Commission to be set up by act of parliament.

This book is a necessary reminder of past mistakes, as well as providing useful suggestions. As such, political fringe organisations such as the Fabians need to attract practitioners from industry, commerce and academia, so that they contribute their expertise to the political debate wherever possible. If would-be ministers are to avoid causing similar blunders in the next Labour government, then this book is for them, a must-read.

5 Comments:

  1. Hans Peter Ulrich

    Wishful thinking on what our politicians ought and should be doing or should be reading will not make our democratic political system as effective as it must be in our new era at the beginning of the 21st century.

    We have to analyse the drivers responsible for ensuring that our policy making system is as effective as it must be.

    No system works effectively without effective control by the stakeholders. In a democracy the citizens themselves govern. What we need is a new effective citizens’ organisation shaping our policy making system and controlling its performance. One of the tasks of the organisation must be to define which skills our politicians require for their job and to make sure they have those qualifications. For more details cf. http://www.optimizingdemocracy.org

    Reply
  2. George Talbot

    Great stuff! Anything on these policies of the Coalition?

    Austerity that cut growth but not the budget deficit?
    Privatising the NHS against expert advice? Or
    Free Schools of dubious benefits and high costs?

    Reply
  3. Jon

    It would have helped if the reviewer had taken enough care to get the title right. It is ‘The Blunders of Our Governments’ an entirely different concept.

    From the precis it seems that the authors are putting the horse before the cart by concentrating on implimentation rather than concept.

    If the political Caste really want to get things right (for a change) they should base ‘change’ on ethics and belief not Vote catching and bean counting.

    Taking the ‘Poll Tax’ as an example. This would have been an easily implimented money saving and vote catching policy IF we had all lived, alone, in large properties with high ratable values. The fantasies of Thatcherism were found to be wanting by this idiotic mistake.

    Similarly with the changes to the benefits system, started by Labour, but extended by the Coalition. There was little argument with the so called ‘Bedroom Tax’ whilst it held water as a re-distribution of housing rescources that would have encouraged people to move to accomodation that was of a more suitable size for their needs. Once it became exposed as a simple bean counting cut in benefits as there were few, if any, small properties available, it became a failure.

    IF, and it’s a big IF, our current Political Caste have any ideals, beliefs and ethics, other than those that will get them re-elected they should apply them to policy at the stage of planning not try and make dead ducks swim.

    Jon

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    • George Talbot

      Jon – I agree our politicians are wont to select policies that get them elected; arguing that unelected they can do little. But I am surprised you suppose current leaders lack ideals, beliefs and ethics. I cited Coalition policies widely expected to work poorly. Surely those who chose them were driven by a simple faith in free market ideology?

      In markets for goods and services where demand and supply are elastic, selfish buyers and sellers set a price that clears the market. This is neat though not necessarily good. But freemarketeers apply this practice far too widely. Now deregulated capitalism has free markets for inappropriate goods and services and for labour, capital and bank credit. Though very productive, this global system is structurally unsound. But rather than analyse its failures and develop sound alternatives, our leaders scapegoat victims and beguile the electorate with sophisticated propaganda.

      Thus high house prices and rents are blamed on a lack of houses not savings seeking safe returns from mortgages. And nations are blamed for current account deficits not nations in surplus despite George Monbiot’s explanation in 2008 of how Keynes’s Clearing Union held both responsible.
      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/nov/18/lord-keynes-international-monetary-fund

      I conclude that too often belief in individual freedom has eclipsed the need for collective restraint.

      Reply
      • Jon

        George – you missed the point – it was not the Coalition but our own Politicals ideals, beliefs and ethics I was questioning.

        I am no economist, just a simple person who could rub two ha’pannies together and get a ten bob note.

        The price that anything demands, whatever the ruling Caste’s Politics is the Price the Market will bear.

        Jon

        Reply
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