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A suberb analysis of the blunders of governments
on 6 October 2013
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.