The Value of Policy Failure

by Ken Gibb

There is a lot to learn from our mistakes. This simple message is artfully developed in the excellent new book – The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.  Older readers will recall King and Crewe as stalwarts of election nights and TV political shows in the 1980s and 1990s. The authors go through the worst policy failures of the Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown governments (with a postscript on the Coalition). While there are points that one might (I believe) reasonably take issue with, King and Crewe devise a simple analytical framework around human error (agency) and system failures (structures or institutions) that should be part of the basic appraisal checklist of policy development at all levels of governance.

How do they define a blunder? It is not particularly scientific but you know when you see it. It is not when there is a genuine judgment call that goes wrong but it usually has familiar symptoms – high costs relative to benefit, refusing to see the problem hurtling towards the Government, actively or passively ignoring the overwhelming evidence, and displaying the personal and institutional attributes they list (and we discuss below).

You can imagine the main examples of previous government blunders:

  • The poll tax
  • Miss-selling private pensions
  • The child support agency
  • Exiting the ERM
  • The Millennium Dome
  • Individual Learning Accounts
  • Tax Credits
  • Assets Recovery Agency
  • Countless IT infrastructure projects such as in the NHS
  • London Underground PPP
  • ID cards.

The fun bit is re-reading these disaster and horror stories. The useful bit is building a rudimentary framework around these ideas of agency and structure. The illustrations of human error are:

  • Cultural disconnect – ministers and advisors making assumptions that we are the same as them. Nicholas Ridley apparently advised people struggling with the poll tax to sell a painting.
  • Groupthink – the pressure to conform requires an institutional counter-balance, a devil’s advocate to stop uncritical and unthinking consensus. In a recent episode of The Newsroom , the network employed its ‘red team’ to critique every aspect of a risky news story (though note that in this fictional case it did not stop a bad story getting out).
  • Prejudice and (not enough pragmatism). In this case, this is about intellectual prejudice and making unwarranted shortcuts in analysis – something we are all guilty of at times. Like groupthink we need dispassionate pragmatic filters to stop this running over cooler analysis of policymaking.
  • Operational disconnect – the authors restate the military maxim that those who plan should be put in charge of execution too. They feel however that too many ministers are not interested in operations.
  • Panics, symbols and spin – the unending news cycle and the prioritisation of spin leads to panic and kneejerk policymaking on the hoof, often led by populist but un-analytical media.

The systemic failures are associated with:

  • The centre can’t hold – the authors contend that compared with other successful and otherwise relatively effective nations, the UK prime minister’s office is tiny and cannot possibly cover the range of government – so it cannot really control or direct its ministries
  • Musical chairs – simply too much ministerial movement compared with other countries where ministerial tenure is long enough to get genuine expertise and commitment into the job.
  • Ministers as activists – and as a consequence of the above, ministers want to make an impact, be very active and memorable so that they can advance their career. It certainly does not make for careful, considered government.
  • Lack of accountability – it is often argued that compounding these problems are systemic accountability failures in terms of individual ministers, and relates to the mystical separation of strategy and operations (recall Michael Howard on Newsnight).
  • A peripheral Parliament– the authors fret about the lack of Parliamentary control and influence, the weakness of what used to be called standing committees on legislation and, slightly surprisingly, laud the Scottish system that both combines select and standing scrutiny functions (and can also initiate legislation).
  • Asymmetries of expertise – this is the well-known principal-agent problem with ministers and advisors over-relying on consultants – the authors argue that blunders in government have on occasion followed from excessive reliance on experts from outside.
  • A deficit of deliberation. – the absence of evidence and the failure to draw sufficiently from, carry out and indeed learn from pilots.

Not only is this book entertaining, if mildly contentious in places, it presents a catalogue of hideous mistakes. It also sets out a series of concepts and consequent lessons, which can help us learn from these blunders and employ a series of safety devices and checklist rules that might in future prevent governments, organisations and the like doing really stupid things. If nothing else it presents us with a series of thought experiments that should be a part of policymaking in the real world.

Does this all speak to current policy worries? King and Crewe identify well-rehearsed Coalition policy disasters such as English student fees but specifically identify ongoing policy development around the welfare reforms and help to buy. Are they, as it were, immanent blunders? Discuss.