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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.
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VINE VOICEon 21 September 2013
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.
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on 20 November 2016
Excellent - and eye-opening - review of matters governmental in the UK in the last few decades... These 'blunders' (the authors define this) are still occurring, and likely to occur in the future, so it's important everyone who can writes to their MP about issues they think are being, or may be, dealt with badly. As the book shows, billions have been wasted, and worse, lives made very unhappy, or even shortened, because of things that governments have lashed up. You can find the details of your MPs and other representatives on the website writetothem.com which, if you put in your postcode, tells you the details of your local area (parish or community) council, your local councillor, your county councillor, your MP and your MEP and has a system so you can write a letter to whichever one applies, direct on screen, and then check it before it goes... then you wait for a reply... and write again if it isn't satisfactory... they log whether you get a reply or not, so MPs get rated....

Personally, I think it very important that people who are a bit short of dosh do contact their MPs to tell them their concerns and worries about what the government may be doing that affects them, as the people they most speak to are other members of the 'political class' like themselves, activists in their parties and PR people from big firms, and all of these people are well-connected and well-heeled.... and this is one reason that they go gaily ahead with these awful schemes....they have no realisation of the harm that may be done to people who are more vulnerable. Do read the book if you can.
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on 27 October 2013
A thoroughly depressing book ... if only they could get things right there would be no need for such severe cuts
A highly recommended read for everyone none the less!
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on 10 September 2014
Why do we let them get away with it?
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on 27 April 2017
Very good, as described
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on 2 May 2017
A book everyone should read, especially now in 2017
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on 12 March 2017
It really is as good as all the five-star reviews would suggest: in a fair and dispassionate way, the book examines policy failures and fiascos from the last 25 years or so and extracts the systemic reasons why such things happen. The writing is excellent, but more important is the tone: the authors studiously refrain from judging the policies in moral terms, but reflect on the legislative, executive and psychological reasons why such things fail. This allows anyone, whatever their personal political preferences, to get a great deal of value out of the book. People serious about effecting change in government simply must read it. But the more general reader will also find much of great value, as it illuminates just how difficult it is to implement drastic changes in large organizations and I think many in more general management positions will finf much of value in it too. For myself, it shows particularly how the lack of awareness of the policy formulator about the actual conditions and experiences of those implementing the policy and those subject to it - the chapters on the poll tax and the CSA were particularly good here. It does also show a semi-conscious "it will be alright on the night" culture in regard to difficulties in many of the projects. The story of the Millenium Dome is used to great effect to show, as all soldiers know, that confused chains of command and responsibility always lead projects into deep trouble. And the story of the Asset Recovery Agency shows the importance of getting those much-derided mission statements right, and understood: otherwise a reasonably effective organization can end up being destroyed for not doing what it was never meant to do...
Highly, highly recommended to those interested in government policy and implementation.
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on 14 May 2016
Wonderful and funny too.
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VINE VOICEon 9 June 2014
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
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