Reading notes

The Blunders of Our Governments

A few months ago, I read The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe: it was very well written and a thoroughly enjoyable read, pointing out the flaws in the political culture and structure in the UK. It asked why successive British governments have blundered. The authors defined a blunder as:

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 a totally disproportionate cost, or else does achieve some or all of them but contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of “collateral damage” in the form of unintended and undesired consequences. (p. 4)

In Part II, aptly called Horror stories, the authors list a number of blunders. The past few decades have been blunders galore. Some of these blunders were very serious which hurt the credibility of the government of the time even fatally such as the plans to introduce poll tax or Britain’s ejection from the ERM. Other blunders are perhaps less well-remembered, but no less serious and certainly no less expensive. Mis-selling of pensions, individual learning accounts, Child Support Agency, Assets Recovery Agency, Rural Payments Agency, ‘Cool Britannia’ (read: the Millennium Dome), public-private partnership on London Underground, and IT projects are cited as examples.

Parts III and IV called Human errors and System errors respectively explain why Britain’s governments keep on blundering: after all, no party has been immune from making blunders, and individuals in the government are neither utterly stupid nor grossly incompetent (though that may sometimes be arguable), so there must be something in the political culture and structure that allow blunders to occur. Part III explores the human factors, and Part IV examines the systematic and structural factors, why such is the case.

What are the human factors? The first factor is cultural disconnect: how much politicians like to pretend that they are like the normal folk, they are not. A plan might seem perfect when drawn up in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, but the fundamental assumptions that politicians (and civil servants implementing politicians’ policies) make are often far removed from the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people. The authors list groupthink as the second factor. Politics can be tribal and there may be rivalries within the government. A few people committed to a plan can become intolerant of any dissent from within or challenges from without. The commitment becomes more fervent and the tunnel vision deeper, and the point of no return has been crossed. Single-mindedness becomes bloody-mindedness. The third factor is prejudice which leads to a lack of pragmatism. This is not about personal prejudices as such, but rather intellectual prejudices often based on broad political consensus, for example that the state ought to have a central role in the economy as it was widely assumed in the post-war period, or that the private sector is inherently efficient and better in the Thatcher and post-Thatcher periods. It becomes difficult to countenance other fundamental assumptions, and politicians stick to their plans regardless of the mounting evidence that they are not working. Not only is there a cultural disconnect, but there is also operational disconnect which the authors list as the fourth factor. This is to say that policymaking and policy implementation are disjointed, or rather politicians like to design policies, but are not always keen to see through their implementation. The fifth and final factor in this section is titled panic, symbols and spin, which summarizes nicely the kind of politics that we often see. There is some terrible thing that happens or is perceived to have happened that causes a media (and today it would probably be Twitter) storm or hysteria demanding that government does something now. It obliges in haste and without due deliberation and goes to address the issue in a visible symbolic manner. The desire to set the agenda for tomorrow’s headline or in this instantaneous media world the next hour means that there has to be constant action and constant spin.

What are the systematic issues in addition to the human element that cause governments to blunder? The first chapter in this part is titled The centre cannot hold: the Whitehall departments act independent of others and somewhat counter-intuitively the prime minister enjoys limited command and authority over his ministers. The authors suggest that the prime minister’s office which is meagrely staffed in international comparison ought to be beefed up. Otherwise the government might be pulling in different directions not because of rivalries but purely because of lack of communication. Musical chairs is the title of the second chapter, which points to the frequency with which the cabinet is reshuffled, and consequently the relatively short period of time that a minister spends in the portfolio. It takes time for the new minister to settle into the department, and if the minister knows that he or she is likely to be moved after a relatively short period of time, he or she would try to score points in the short term. Also the minister may not be in the post to implement what he or she had started. The third factor is ministers as activists, which is linked to many of the factors already mentioned: ministers need to act (or at least seen to be doing something). Policies and pieces of legislation may be rushed without the necessary scrutiny and without considering valid concerns. While ministers resign, leave, demoted, or promoted for various reasons and quite regularly, oddly as noted in the chapter Accountability, lack of, very few ministers actually lose their positions due to blunders: a minister who is embroiled in a scandal such as appearances of financial improprieties or personal moral failings is far more likely to pay with his or her job than for making blunders in his or her job. The next chapter titled A peripheral parliament highlights the lack of scrutiny that goes into the legislative process in Westminster (though the authors point that Holyrood has a better system of committees to scrutinize legislation) or the ability of the parliament to hold the government in account. There are often asymmetries of expertise which explains why governments have been ripped off in contracts, such as the various PPPs and PFIs. Finally, the authors point to a deficit of deliberation. British governments can act decisively in a way that governments in other countries cannot, and that means that great reforms can be accomplished, yet it also means that great blunders can be allowed to go ahead. As there is a widely-shared centre ground in British politics, it ought to be possible for political parties to agree, but in a deeply party-political system, the parties need to manufacture greater differences in order to distinguish themselves from others.

Could the upcoming election on 7 May 2015 whose results may produce a weak government in the sense that it does not have a majority that it can always and reliably count on actually herald a change in how politics are done in the UK? Quite possibly, and a minority government may have to seek greater consensus in the legislative functions it performs (as perhaps opposed to the executive functions), though I somehow think governments will keep on blundering, since many of the factors both in terms of the personnel wedded to certain ideas and the structures that foster blunders will remain in place whatever the composition of the next government.

The Blunders of Our Governments

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ISBN: 9781780744056