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4.2 out of 5 stars13
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on 31 July 2013
The first few chapters are a detailed discussion of a series of major mistakes by Government in implementing various policies. Most (understandably) were carried out under the previous Labour administration (eg CSA, student finance, farm support, NHS) but you don't get the feel that this is Labour bashing - the impression is that the errors would have happened whichever party was in power . There is a welcome concentration of the effects on ordinary people of the woeful administration. This part of the book makes for depressing reading and after a while I began to skip sections as it was so depressing in the way the same mistakes were repeated again and again.
I found the latter chapters fascinating. These concentrate on how Government works and how hard it is to make individuals (either ministers or civil servants) responsible for what they do.
I finished the book with no clear idea on how the authors think things can be made to work better and this is why it gets only four stars rather than five.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 November 2013
Written by a Conservative MP and a Daily Telegraph political journalist, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong - and what we can do about it is - as the last part of the title suggests - rather more friendly to public services than you might expect from that author combination. It is a book about how to make public services better, not about how to replace public services with private provision - and private providers to the public sector often get short shrift for dismal performance. No reader of the book will be left thinking that private companies offer some magic solution when the public sector hits trouble.

The book starts with 12 factual chapters, each detailing a particular public service failure horror. The quality of these chapters is a little disappointing, as they are little more than a neatly done collection of press stories and Parliamentary committee enquiries edited together. They are decent, but don't reveal anything new about any of the 12 failures. They do not offer much in the way of consistent analysis across the set either. It's a well done cuttings collection rather than a piece of new research (perhaps understandably given how busy the two authors are).

That leaves the final few chapters, which try to draw out the lessons, including (inevitably and rightly) one specifically on IT failures. After the chapter on IT professionals, there are also ones that question why politicians and why civil servants so often get it wrong. These are rather kind to their subjects, making the point that civil servants, for example, are recruited from some of the very brightest and best people in the country. So simply dismissing their errors as the blunders of stupid people rather misses the point. Why is it that people who are so smart make so many mistakes? It's a much harder question to answer than simply glibly assuming that they're far more stupid than you are.

The book makes some good points about how neither politics nor the civil service's personnel processes favour expertise at running things. Democratic politics favours those who can win elections, a reasonable flaw considering the alternatives. The civil service's failures are less forgivable, prioritising as they do the ability to advise on policy rather than the ability either to run things or to advise on running things.

As Mike Bracken, head of the remarkably successful Government Digital Service, puts it, "Delivery is too often the poor relation to policy".

In the end, though, the book is rather muted in its would-be solutions. Perhaps the long experience of both authors in covering public service failures has made them very wary about thinking there are easy solutions.

However they do finish on a good point that recent advances in understanding why people behave the way they do are starting to influence economics and other fields. There is still much scope for them to shed more light on management and the questions of how to nudge people into being good rather than bad managers of projects, be they private or public sector.

That is a challenge where the culture within organisations is crucial. For, in the words of the NHS IT programme's Aidan Halligan, "culture eats strategy for breakfast". That is, no matter how good your intentions, your strategy and your plans, without the right culture in the organisation it will all go wrong.
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on 1 February 2016
Fascinating insight into how tax payers money gets wasted time and time again. Hopefully someone in Whitehall is reading this and taking notes . . .
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on 9 October 2013
Richard asked me to review the IT chapter in draft - I'd spent a number of years in start-ups using agile methods to compete against the leviathans. For anyone who is wondering how departments and contractors manage to produce failure on such an epic scale, the book is worth buying for that chapter alone.
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on 26 August 2013
It trite to say that if we do not learn from mistakes we are condemned to repeat them. However, this seems to be the pattern of the management of major government projects. The authors are well placed to provide an insight into this important area. Richard Bacon has served on the Public Accounts Committee for many years and has analysed a number of the projects described in the book. Christopher Hope is a highly respected political journalist. Together they have produced an extremely well written and insightful book.

This is a book of two halves. The first half is a description of individual projects. The second half then seeks to analyse the structure of government and how it may contribute to difficulties with projects. These chapters should be compulsory reading for all ministers and senior civil servants. The final chapters suggests that the answer to these issues may be in the application of behavioural science. Let's hope that in time this book is studied by history students and not by politics students.
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on 3 August 2014
This is an extremely well researched book written in an extremely engaging manner. Richard Bacon MP has built up great expertise during his time on the Public Accounts Committee.
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on 2 August 2013
I try to avoid politics as much as possible, but it's useful to have the major government cock-ups in one place, with details of the astonishing amounts of wasted money spelled out. The details are far from dry and boring, and the circumstances, as well as the nature and worrying behaviour of the politicians and Whitehall Mandarins, are well laid out. Of course, what is really depressing is the knowledge that nothing will change; HS2 is the next big scandal in the pipeline, with everyone knowing that the current ludicrous estimate of the cost will increase vastly until this white elephant is completed. Vain politicians keen to 'make their mark', and Civil Servants with no talent for business management, unable to understand - or worry about - the cost of anything they do, will continue to make theses horrendous mistakes, and the poor old tax-payer will pay the penalty, as always.
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on 19 June 2014
Books like this should be compulsory reading for all politicians, civil servants CEOs of NGOs and indeed managers in any kind of Government body. But would they learn from it? I doubt it. Does anyone learn from other people's mistakes? Do they even learn from their own? I suspect only if they show willing to start using their brain and think laterally. Some hope.
KC
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on 14 September 2014
Just what I wanted - as expected
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on 19 March 2014
Enjoyable writing on a difficult area in an engaging style.Great to have examples of what not to do collected all in one place - good reading for vendor (my) side of the fence.
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