Blundering into agreement

Anthony King and Ivor Crewe were on great form today at the RSA where they did a splendid double act in support of their new book, The Blunders of Government.

I plan to write a fuller review to go alongside my post on Conundrum earlier this week, but that will have to wait until I have read the book. So far, I have only got as far the introduction, where one point particularly jumped out at me.

In expressing some frustration with the approach taken in Conundrum, I wrote:

More fundamentally, while the case studies are useful as a set of reminders about what happened, there is very little about how or why… That’s why the case studies are ultimately unsatisfying: they can describe what went wrong in relentless detail, draw out common areas of weakness and in that sense give some substance to the assertion that we know why projects go wrong. It’s much harder to discern why this one and not that one, or to be clear who was making what decisions on the basis of what evidence – or absence of evidence – which led to later catastrophe. Given the reliance on NAO and PAC reports as primary sources that’s not surprising: the value for money study process doesn’t – and perhaps can’t – attempt to do that.

Interestingly, King and Crewe make almost exactly the same point in their introduction:

The National Audit Office, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee and some, though not all, other parliamentary committees are admirable bodies, and in what follows we frequently cite their reports. That said, however, their reports and the investigations that lead up to them typically suffer from two limitations, both to some extent self-imposed. One is that, partly out of a desire to operate on a non-partisan, dispassionate basis, they largely focus on the “what” questions and tend to neglect the “why” questions. They say that something went wrong, describe what went wrong and usually say what they think should be done to avoid the same kind of thing going wrong in future; but they seldom delve deeply into the causes of whatever went wrong. In particular, they seldom explore the decision making by ministers and officials that led to the committing of the blunder in question.

Apart from the small satisfaction of having my opinions validated by two such panjandrums, that gives me still greater confidence that this is going to be a book well worth reading.

Much more importantly, though, it reinforces the point that this is a really important issue. If there is a problem that many things do not go well in government – and both these books make that case pretty unarguably – and one of the primary mechanisms for identifying and challenging the blunders fails to do so in a way which provides any real help in addressing systematic problems, then that mechanism itself is a blunder which needs fixing.

Who is there to audit the auditors?

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