Blundering about

I had high hopes of The Blunders of our Governments. Its authors, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe have spent decades apiece observing the British political system. If they can’t make sense of what happens, perhaps nobody can. And that’s a worrying thought, because although their book is entertaining and very readable, it doesn’t leave us as much the wiser as I had hoped. Like so many of the policies it describes, the ambition is impressive, but the delivery falls short of the promise.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not well worth reading. On the contrary, every MP, every minister and every civil servant who works on the development or implementation of policies should read it. And I suspect that every one of them should feel a frisson of recognition: all of us have done or have seen done the things which King and Crewe criticise, nobody who has been in this game for any length of time has an entirely clean record.

There are three essential questions which we need to answer. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? And why did it go wrong again? King and Crewe have a lot to say about the first, some useful insights into the second, but not so much to say about the third – which is a shame, because in many ways it is the most important of all.

The basic structure is very similar to that of Conundrum. The first half of the book is a series of what the authors call ‘horror stories’ – how a number of policies were developed and implemented (or failed to be implemented) over the last thirty years. There are then two further parts, covering human errors and system failures, which draw on the examples set out earlier on. Though subject and structure are very similar between the two books, the substance is very different. King and Crewe cover broader ground, including policy failure as well as programme failure (and very effectively demonstrating how closely linked those two things often are), over a longer time period, drawing on a wider set of sources. Their stories are richer, their analysis more systematic, but the basic message is the same: too many things go wrong, too often.

Despite the bleakness of its message, this is in many ways an entertaining book: King and Crewe have found a large barrel full of fish, which they shoot at with great gusto. The horror stories are told with great panache, some are rightly rescued from obscurity, and even the better known examples are told with telling details which add usefully to understanding.

Once we get through the stories and into the analysis, things get a bit more curious. The same examples pop up relentlessly and repeatedly. Are they typical or extreme? They are clearly too many, but are they edge cases or the norm? Are these failures of systems or failures of individuals? We can never quite be sure, and that’s a symptom of an important problem we will come back to.

King and Crewe are trenchant on the recurring characteristics of failure. Three particularly stand out for me.

The first is the consistent failure to see – still less act on – the gap between political intent and policy implementation. This is a description of the public-private partnership to manage the modernisation of the London Underground, but it could have been almost any of the case studies:

A handful of ministers thus handed down from on high a tremendously ambitious strategic idea. But they did not hand down anything that remotely resembled a strategic plan. They knew roughly where they wanted to go but had little idea of how to get there, and they left others almost wholly alone to do the detailed work.1

Or more pithily,

Ministers made policy, it was up to others to implement it.2

The second is the misplaced idea that actors in the system will respond and behave in the ways that the policy assumes they will or should. The Child Support Agency did not meet with eager compliance. Individual learning accounts did meet with very eager compliance, in large degree from those who saw an opportunity to use them to commit fraud. The people who were expected to pay the poll tax were very different from those who invented it:

The fact that the core group of ministerial decision makers was so homogeneous and so comfortably middle class – in a context in which the behaviour of people, many of whom were not even slightly middle class, would be crucial – made it highly probable that cultural disconnect would occur; but what made it a near certainty was that the members of the core group seem never to have entertained, however remotely, the possibility that cultural disconnect could occur.3

Even in services for which there is a legal obligation, or for which there is no alternative, failure to understand customers’ attitudes and behaviour is a route to failure. The importance of customer insight has taken root in government only recently, too late to have influenced almost any of the case study projects. There is now much more rigorous customer insight than used to be the case - but whether its harder messages are acted on, and whether they are available to be acted on early enough in the decision making process is yet to be seen.

The third characteristic of failure is to assume success:

Almost all those directly involved in almost every instance seem to have been taken unawares by the failure of their policy and, having assumed that their policy would work, to have given no thought to what they would do in the event that it failed to. 4

That is more than a little surprising, both because of recurrent experience that the implementation of policy is not always successful, and (although King and Crewe don’t put it this way) because of simple arithmetic. If five steps need to be taken in sequence, even if each step has an 80% chance of success, the project as a whole has a two thirds chance of failure.5 Shared purpose and enthusiasm are huge strengths, but can also be the source of great weakness:

Later, asked what had gone wrong, one senior minister was blunt: “The major defect in the whole process was that everyone involved in it was in favour of it. There was no grit in the oyster. No one saw that the whole concept was ludicrous.”6

Those three issues taken together – and they are by no means the only ones discussed by King and Crewe – show a further emergent property: much energy and attention and such perception of risk as there is are often focused in the wrong place:

The easy bit, though it may not seem easy at the time, is deciding what ought to be done: the hard bit is the doing of it, and the hard bit is likely to be very hard.7

So much for the diagnosis. What of the prescription?

Here King and Crewe are on weaker ground. They have looked for blunders and found them. They have looked at blunders and discerned some common features. But they cannot tell us how successes differ from blunders and they cannot tell us whether other approaches to public administration result in more or fewer blunders or whether other kinds of organisations are better at avoiding blunders or better at hiding them. They do occasionally mention successes – trade union reform and the minimum wage, for example8 – but not in a way which helps us understand what’s different about them.

What’s needed is some form of prospective cohort study. Given a set of policy intentions, which ones survive through to effective implementation, and which go badly wrong somewhere along the way? There is a powerful and important book needing to be written about the decision making processes of government and why the results of those processes are often so far from their intent. This is not that book.

That limitation takes us full circle. We know what goes wrong. We know many of the factors which result in things going wrong. But we don’t why, knowing those things, it has proved so hard to break the cycle. And so at the very end of Blunders we come to this:

What we observed – and still observe today – is not a sequence of unrelated episodes but a pattern. It would seem to follow that, if the incidence of blunders is to be reduced, it is the British governing system, and the ways in which people function within that system, that needs to change.9

Do we know how to respond to that challenge? And if we do, can we admit to it? And if we can admit to it, can we act on it?

  1. Location 3896 (references are to the kindle edition, which for this book does not have mapping from location to page numbers)
  2. Loc 3900. I think that may be to draw the line too firmly between ministers and others: as a number of the case studies indicate, the divide is perhaps more generally between those who formulate and those who implement.
  3. Loc 4278. Again, drawing the line between ministers and everybody else is probably not quite the right place for it.
  4. Loc 4816
  5. No, of course it’s not as simple as that: the point is not that failure is inevitable, but that risk management is essential.
  6. Loc 4542, on the Child Support Agency
  7. Loc 5040
  8. Loc 6133
  9. Loc 6777

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