A blunder is defined as: a gross mistake; an error caused by stupidity or carelessness. The authors make clear that it is not to be confused with a bad judgment call, something we all make from time to time. Blunders in the political context have a long history, but a major difference between early blunders and modern examples is the scale of the latter, often made possible by the rise of technology, particularly computer system, which have `enabled' vastly greater sums of money to be wasted. It is a source of wonder that huge schemes, whose success relies heavily on IT system, have been commissioned by people with scant knowledge of the capability of such systems. An extreme example of this, which led to the loss of many billions of pounds, was when the largest IT project the world had ever seen (to modernise the NHS) was commissioned by Tony Blair, whose knowledge of computer technology could probably have been written on the back of a postage stamp.
The book opens with a quick summary of blunders made in the last 40 years and then turns to a detailed examination of major examples, starting with the uncollectable Poll Tax, and including the hopelessly optimistic Child Support Agency, the pointless Millennium Dome project, the corruption-destroyed Individual Learning Accounts, the hugely expensive failed IT system for the NHS, the attempt to modernise the London Underground system using hideously complex PPP contracts, and many others. Each is examined in forensic detail. It is made clear why the projects failed so spectacularly and why each failure could, and should, have been seen very early on. The blame is clearly laid at the door of those responsible, usually senior politicians, although civil servants were often complicit.
Warning signs were usually clearly visible early enough to have stopped the blunder occurring, but they were missed or ignored, and several reasons why that happened are examined in the later chapters of the book. They include `cultural disconnect'. For example, when on-the-spot fines were proposed for loutish behavior in public it was assumed that the perpetrator would have a bank account with at least £100 in it and a valid debit card. When it was suggested to Nicholas Ridley that an elderly couple might not be able to afford to pay the Poll Tax, he replied (apparently not joking) "Why don't they sell a picture." There was also `group think', where only a closed group of people with a similar political outlook considered a proposal, and no attempt was made to include anyone who might challenge its assumptions. This was the case with the notorious Poll Tax that lead directly the ousting of Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Party. Another is `prejudice and pragmatism'. Thus, in the case of the modernisation of the London Underground, Labour politicians were strongly prejudiced in favour of private companies as being more efficient, rather than considering letting London Underground do the job itself, and they were also set on excluding any involvement of the hated Ken Livingstone, who was about to become Mayor of London.
One of the most damming conclusions is that the political system in the UK is geared in such a way that blunders are almost inevitable. The very short time ministers remain in post, the lack of suitably qualified senior civil servants and their constant shuffling between jobs, leaves far too little time for proposals to be considered in detail, including scrutinisation by people who have doubts about the proposal. This should be done by Parliamentary committees, but in practice the relevant committees are structured so that they merely rubber stamp proposals, and the House of Commons is largely ineffectual in this role. Things will only improve if the Parliamentary committee system is restructured so that Members can play a serious role at an early stage. This is important, because there is usually a disconnect between formulating a policy, which may well seem fine on paper, and its implementation, with the people responsible for the latter not consulted at the formulation stage.
As soon as I started to read the Introduction to this book I knew that I was in for a treat. I was not disappointed. The writing is precise and beautifully clear, but retains informality. The analysis and conclusions are based on reading voluminous reports, contracts, discussion papers etc. about each case and above all numerous interviews with politicians, civil servants and others who were closely involved with both the formulation and the implementation of the various proposals. There is some repetition, but this is inevitable as the authors return to projects and look at them from several different viewpoints. This is a remarkable book and the authors have done all of us a great service in revealing how major proposals, that we all have to live with, arise. I only wish that politicians would read it and take note, but I am very pessimistic.
At times it felt as if I was reading a satire on the political class and our increasingly discredited civil service. Time and time again we read in the papers about the latest cock-up or the one waiting around the corner (HS2 springs to mind). I suppose you can take some comfort from the realisation that incompetence is not a new phenomenon in the world of politics. This book offers a sufficiently comprehensive review of failed projects that it doesn't actually matter that the odd project is missing. After all who cares when there are so many to savour or despair over. The authors are credible academics which means people, especially those currently inhabiting Westminster should sit up and take note. Their analysis is fair and impartial - which makes the content of this book all the more scary. Although I don't agree with every aspect of their analysis of the causes of blunders, this is (perhaps wrongly or myabe not) undoubtedly one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time; which is, I suspect, an appropriate indictment on the supposed competence of British parliamentarians. Highly recommended.
The Blunders of our Governments promises much but delivers short.
Aside from a brief opening to say that broadly the Governments of the UK have achieved good things, the book launches into a list of "blunders", defined carefully to distinguish them from judgement calls that turned out to be incorrect. Blunders, essentially, are mistakes that should have been avoidable. Each blunder is set out in some detail, with an overall feel of political dispassion. The focus os on what happened, rather than who did what. It promises that the blunders will be examined in later chapters to discover why things went wrong, but goes to great pains to avoid personal blame. And because the blunders are set out in rough sequential order, they start with Tory blunders under Thatcher and Major, and then segue into Labour mistakes under Blair and Brown. The book makes the point that all governments, regardless of political complexion, are liable to commit blunders.
Some of the blunders are well known: the Poll Tax; The ERM; the Child Support Agency; ID Cards. Others are less well known: esoteric computer systems, single payments for farmers; the PPP for London Underground. It is telling that whilst it is funny to hear the well known blunders laid out for analysis, the less well known ones are hard to grasp; it is never quite clear exactly what is happening or why it is such a bad thing. We take it at face value that bad things are being described, and this is supported by quotes from various audit reports, but they are not being described terribly well.
Then, half way through, the authors stop setting out blunders and claim to identify the underpinning causes of the blunders. Some of this is hard to dispute: cultural disconnect; groupthink; lack of accountability; lack of IT procurement expertise. But each new factor brings a fresh roll call of the blunders. It quickly becomes repetitive.
The analysis itself feels superficial and the authors' recommendations are not properly supported. For a start, although the blunders are described in terms of the amount of money wasted, there is no sense of how this sits within overall government expenditure. Is Government blowing 50% of its money; 5% or 0.5%. Or even less? If it is at the top end of the scale, then clearly something needs to be done. If it is at the bottom end, then is it just the price worth paying for otherwise efficient government? I have no view one way or the other, but the authors should have set it in context.
The recommendations themselves - for increased use of legislative scrutiny committees; cross party working; longer tenure for ministers; bringing ministers in from outside Parliament may have some merit (who can say - the arguments deployed are flimsy and incomplete), but they are culturally impossible. It's all very well to say that the UK Parliament should be more like Scandinavia, but it isn't and never will be. Sure, you can construct new Parliaments (e.g. the Scottish Parliament) from a clean slate according to a different model, but you can't overturn centuries of tradition just to avoid another Poll Tax.
And on the subject of the Poll Tax, the authors would have the reader believe that the Thatcher government could and would have opted for a banded property tax if only they had thought of it. The suggestion that the whole government was asleep as a couple of junior ministers got the proposal through is nonsense. There was an ideology at play and the Poll Tax embodied that ideology. The Tories knew what they were doing and just assumed they had the numbers to get it through (which they did) and that the public would comply (and there was little reason to think they wouldn't). The narrative behind this blunder just doesn't ring true.
Similarly, the narrative behind ID cards misses the ideological points. Yes, it accurately reports that the decision was taken to introduce ID cards before anyone had thought of a purpose, but it doesn't get to the heart of the circumstances (knee-jerk reaction to the World Trade Center attacks); David Blunkett's wish to give people something tangible (c.f. his previous attempt to introduce ID cards for teachers); and Labour ministers' fear of appearing soft on civil liberties (hence, once the idea was proposed, none felt empowered to argue against).
The failings of both these sections make me wonder just how much has been glossed over in other sections.
The Blunder of our Governments is a light (if long) read and will bring back memories of past blunders and scandals. It is interesting to hear once-familiar names (Norman Fowler, Norman Tebbit, Lord Young, Nigel Lawson) being set in an ostensibly objective, historical context. It is interesting to think that things could have been different, even if one doubts that really to have been the case. But as serious academic study, this does not work because of the lack of context and scale.
This book is about the mistakes that governments make. Not where they make a call that turns out to be a wrong one, or when things happen and the response isn't right, but where governments press on regardless of what the evidence is telling them. Everyone knew the poll tax wouldn't work, that the football ID cards would be a shambles, that ID cards wouldn't work, that we got the CSA all wrong that the privatisation of the Tube was the wrong thing to do. But still ministers and civil servants went on - often wasting billions of pounds in the process.
This book attempts to answer the question, and the authors' analysis is fascinating. I worked in government at the time some of these were happening, so recall them well. We knew that the policies we were implementing would not work., but nobody listened. In some cases, nobody spoke up.
Recommended for anyone with an interest in politics. Should be essential reading for anyone taking up ministerial office
If you are unfamiliar with the topic, then this is a decent enough introduction on how and why the UK government often gets things spectacularly wrong. The authors have fixed upon a catchy title, and go on to provide a definition of blunders, examples of blunders, and advice on how the system could be fixed to avoid blunders.
If you are familiar with the topic then you are likely to find relatively little here that is particularly new or surprising. Familiarity with the topic would include reading the odd issue of The Economist or Private Eye. Despite an incredible breadth of research and interviews, this often reads like a quick collation of various news stories from the past few decades. Relatively little use seems to have been made of the direct interviews, though the very extensive research and engagement does at least mean that the book is free of the sort of glaring misunderstandings that can pepper such books.
For my money, the book could easily have been shorter on recommendations, and longer on the case studies. I think that a more polemical book written by one author (and fewer researchers) might have given more punch to the topic. While this is not up to the standard of Whitehall by Peter Hennessy, it is a reasonably astute analysis of the state of British government.
For a completely different perspective, try The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber.
on 2 November 2013
For anyone with an interest in British politics who wishes to understand how clever people can make stupid decisions, wasting billions of pounds of other people's money on the way. Politicians decide what they want to do, refuse to listen any arguments or evidence other than those they wish to hear, and persist in their policies until disaster occurs. King and Crewe cover both familiar examples (such as Mrs Thatcher's idiotic poll tax) and less familiar (such as Prescott's ludicrous attempt to privatise the Tube). It would be nice to think that our leaders might learn something from these cautionary tales, but we can be pretty sure they won't. HS2, anyone?
on 17 December 2013
This book is a well-researched account of the many blunders made in the government of Britain during the last thirty years. It is, however, more of a catalogue than an analysis. The suggestions made for doing better in the years ahead are very unconvincing and the obvious questions (to a scientist) have not been asked ; we need to look for more efficient governments, examine carefully the differences between them and our British one, and then formulate a helpful hypothesis. Half the amount of 'fact' and ten times the amount of thought about underlying reasons and how to correct them would have made a brilliant book. As it is, this is a mere academic pot-boiler, which is a pity when the subject is one which is genuinely important.
on 6 October 2013
While I found this a very fine analysis of the many ways in which governments serially and severally have managed to squander taxpayers' money, to the extent that budget deficits are trivial by comparison, I do have one quibble: while affecting a 'non-partisan' approach, the authors several times remark with approval on something they regard as a 'successful' government policy, namely, the sale of council houses to private tenants started by the Thatcher administrations.
While it was certainly administratively successful in the short term (how could it not be? sitting tenants were subsidised according to the length of their tenancies and often received a generous windfall from the taxpayer), the real effects of the policy are now evident: the UK now has one of the smallest stocks of regulated public-sector rented accommodation in Europe and those who cannot buy are forced into the unregulated private sector, where rents are high. As a result, the provision of housing benefits (which mostly go to the working poor and pensioners, not the unemployed) has undergone an extraordinary inflation. Cui bono? Not the taxpayer, surely, and not those who live in overpriced, often sub-standard rented accommodation.
Was this really a success and not a long-term blunder?
Perhaps I should write a book about it...
They also comment favourably on other contentious issues such as privatisation and the anti-union legislation piloted through the house by Norman Tebbit. I think 'non-partisan', while certainly applying to their analysis of the cases they cover, does not really apply to their general world-view.
on 18 October 2013
In many ways this is an important book, delineating not just many horrible blunders but also the reasons why they have occurred. Two particular examples are the Poll tax and the part-privatisation of the London Underground upgrade, but there are many - too many - others (and that's a criticism of government, not the book itself). Others could have been added, the whole area of "defence" spending being one: from the TSR2 fiasco of the 1960s to the business of the two unneeded and unavailable for years aircraft carriers of the present day; but defence spending blunders could make up a whole book in themselves.
Chapter 14 on the part-privatisation of the Underground (brilliantly and appropriately titled "Down the tubes") is a complete horror-story, and King and Crewe list (pp 207-14) the 13 major weaknesses that led to possibly as much as a £30 billion (£30 billion!) loss on the whole farrago. The two worst of these, in my view, were (a) the crazed decision to adopt the scheme because it would take the borrowing off the (government's) books to reduce (but only nominally) the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement - unnecessary, because LU could have issued bonds for the money and have them guaranteed by the government - and (b) the fact that the whole thing was designed so that the private sector would take the risk, except, of course, that when things went haywire the private sector dumped the risk back on the government. But these two are features of all Private Finance Initiative schemes, and one criticism of the book is that it might, instead of majoring on the Tube PFI, have considered the PFI racket as a whole, as there are so many, especially in the NHS, that have put an intolerable load on their finances.
Going back to the Tube fiasco, elsewhere in that chapter the authors mention another weakness, which should have been No 14: the fact that, although by 2000-2003 the government had already spent a great deal of money on it, but that abandonment at this stage would have not only meant starting again with a U-turn but admitting that Ken Livingstone (then Mayor of London) had been right to oppose the scheme. This petty attitude to Livingstone, incidentally, mirrors exactly Thatcher's attitude to his opposition to her (un)employment policies and subsequent spiteful selling off of County Hall. Not at all pretty.
The authors consider over a dozen blunders, before going on in Part III to try to get at the reasons why they happen, and there are a dozen of these, including the foolish practice of moving ministers around between ministries (they might have said the same about moving civil servants too; an old civil service colleague of mine reckoned that you would be moved on as soon as you'd gained a decent understanding of your current job, and it certainly felt like that) and the utter inability of parliament as it is presently constituted to exercise any element of real accountability on the way things are done by government.
So far so terrific, and the book makes great (though utterly depressing) reading. There is, however, something of a black hole in the middle of it that does rather reduce its value. The authors make clear that they are judging how effectively policy changes were carried out, but not the wider effects of those policy changes, and "the differentiation between them raises, inevitably, fundamental issues of culture and values" (page 5). Well, yes: but there's more to this than simply saying whether something was done well: there is the much bigger question of whether it should have been done at all. They justify this with the example of Rommel, whom everyone could agree was a brilliant and fairly blunder-free general but who fought in an evil cause. But consider the poll tax; that was carried out fairly effectively, but it all came to grief because it was fundamentally unfair. How much of the fact that it was unfair should have entered considerations? This tends to make it difficult to separate the how from the why. And was it the worst of the blunders considered, as they suggest? I would rather doubt that: it contains many elements of stupidity and heedlessness, but so does the whole business of going over to private pensions with all the mis-selling that generated, but with the added dimension of malfeasance, greed and plain crookery for which, as far as I'm aware, no one served a single day in prison. For me, that makes it a far worse blunder even than the poll tax, because the consequences were harm to millions on a very large scale, whilst the consequences of the poll tax were more concentrated on the political, in particular the fact that it did for Thatcher, wonderful though that was.
But where this approach comes most seriously to grief is in the consideration of privatisation. Here the authors blithely state that, although "many sceptics and doom-mongers condemned as a blunder-in-the-making the Thatcher government's privatisation of most of the UK's public utilities during the 1980s ... privatisation is now almost universally-accepted as having been a success." (page 5). These words ring spectacularly hollow now, when the utility companies have turned into appalling rackets for creaming off vast profits for shareholders, bonuses for the top echelons of the companies that own them - and huge price rises for the public. Worse, the companies have loaded themselves up with debt (lending vast sums to themselves so they can pay themselves back with large fees) so that the interest paid can be set against tax so that they pay hardly any at all. If this is a success, I hate to think what a failure would look like. These rackets are virtually all monopolies - this applies to water and power supply the railway companies and all the rest of the corporate brigands, and it shocks me that the authors are able so easily to separate the process of privatisation (which was a success, I suppose) from the wider consequences (which certainly are not). For this reason, I have downrated the book to three stars, despite its many strengths in other respects.
on 8 June 2014
The first third of the book is a wonderful evisceration of a number of the last few UK governments. It doesn't take sides, cutting down Labour and the Conservatives with equal measure. It's terribly enjoyable.
But then it starts to re-use the same issues again and again to make slightly different points. While still good it gets a little repetitive and slightly boring. I had to work to get through the last half.