Guest Editorial > “The Blunders of our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
“The Blunders of our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe | Roger Steer
It's good to be reminded of the faults of our masters and this book is one to put on your Christmas list
This is an entertaining read telling some important truths to those in power in the UK.
The NHS gets off relatively lightly and the book even points to the creation of the NHS as one of the great successes of UK government: achieving decisively a national health insurance scheme delivering high quality services at relatively modest cost when other countries with different government arrangements have merely talked about it.
The NHS does not escape however and the troubling matter of the NHS IT project receives a chapter of attention without adding much we didn’t already know- although it reinforces the culpability of the then Prime Minister. It then also features in an “Omnishambles” postscript devoted to the recent Coalition government focusing on the Lansley initiated Health and Social Care Act 2012 as an example of many of the things that can go wrong drawn from the lessons of the book. The authors reserve their judgement on the substance of the Lansley reforms but draw uncanny parallels with the poll tax disaster in terms of the way things were done.
Overall what do we learn?
First, that many of the countries finest achievements were acts of government.
The BBC and the NHS are held out as the jewels of the crown but due regard is given to green belt legislation, the Clean Air Act, road safety measures, the minimum wage, public health measures and the Olympics. This therefore is not a book in support of no government or of a shrunken state.
But the book quickly starts to list a series of more debateable forays into attempting to solve problems the most significant of which, and which provide lessons drawn later in the book, are given the accolade of a specific chapter in the book. Thus chapters cover the poll tax , exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the millennium dome, individual learning accounts, tax credits, the asset recovery agency , the rural payments agency, the NHS IT System, the public-private London Underground, and ID cards. These chapters provide plenty of local colour and all reveal a bit more of these episodes, even if we felt we were aware of them at the time.
Out of the examples the authors discern the following problems associated with these and various government initiatives over the years:
Cultural Disconnect: The people behind some of the ideas didn’t understand what they were talking about. They were on another planet culturally.
Groupthink: The problems that arise when people become focused on doing something forgetting to ask whether it is the right thing to do.
Intellectual Prejudices: These can act to rule out more obvious options.
Operational Disconnect: Most focus is placed on this and the military example of nominating those responsible for planning with the responsibility for implementation is commended.
Decision making in a hurry driven by panic, and the need for symbolic victories and political spin.
The authors attribute various UK factors to the existence of these problems: a weak centre with the relative lack of power of the UK prime minister; the system of musical chairs whereby ministers change jobs frequently; trying to move too quickly; lack of advice to ministers on how to avoid elephant traps; lack of accountability allowing culprits to have long gone before problems emerge and finally a parliament that doesn’t do its job.
My reflections on the book as a student of public administration and as someone with a lifetime of enforced participation in these matters is that there is curious absence of discussion of the findings of the Fulton Inquiry of earlier years calling for more expertise at the higher levels of government and the lack of reflection of the insidious corruption within the UK system. By this I mean the way that vested interests can buy influence by helping to finance political parties both directly and indirectly.
Professionalism in management has been long neglected with all pressures being exerted to reduce non-partisan loyalty and to promote sofa government and spin.
The book provides ample examples of what goes wrong when government outsources its responsibilities and management capabilities and when government makes assumptions, often provided by vested interests, about what are the relevant options worth considering for delivery and financing.
Finally for those that may be inclined to think blunders are the exclusive territory of government it might have been good to reflect on the headline problems in the private sector: Barings, Enron, BP, Financial Services, General Electric etc. Governance, Competence and Corruption seem to be common factors across all sectors.
The fear is that the book will be cherry picked to support a variety of responses and that an opportunity has been lost to speak more authoritively rather than just entertainingly.
“The Blunders of our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe;
Oneworld , London 2013, £25.00