The Blunders of Our Governments. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. London: Oneworld, 2013.
At a time when the modern state is faced with the pressures of austerity and a rising anti-politics sentiment among its citizens, The Blunders of our Governments takes on the important task of cataloguing and diagnosing the many policy failures of British government over several decades. In this, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe sketch out some of the details of twelve highly readable ‘horror stories’ of British public policy; with the cases including the poll tax, the ERM crisis, the Millennium Dome, the public private partnership for upgrading the London underground and the aborted identity cards scheme. Having done this, they reflect on some of the causes of the identified blunders and how they can be linked to defects of the British system of government, and to the cultures and practices that are prevalent in Whitehall and in Westminster. This is a noble effort and no doubt one that will attract the interest and attention of influential decision-makers in government. Its format makes it highly accessible for a popular audience, but means that it frustratingly fails to make any reference to the substantial amount of research that exists on policy disasters (and the litany of labels used to describe the occasions when things go wrong with policy). This means that a lot of what is already known about the dysfunctional pathologies of modern British government is overlooked, for example the excellent work of Moran (2003) on policy catastrophes and the regulatory state. Indeed, King and Crewe repeat many of the arguments made by Dunleavy (1995) about large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes being endemic to Britain’s political/administrative system, and even draw on some of the same cases. The lack of a clearly structured theoretical framework or method for policy analysis means that the set of explanations of policy blunders seems rather ad hoc and there is no attempt to integrate these in some sort of conclusion. Indeed, the book ends rather abruptly with a postscript on the Coalition government’s record on policy blunders.
That this is such an engaging account is in part because it is full of contradictions and unsolved puzzles. The authors repeatedly suggest that British government is blunder-prone (p. ix, xiv, 399), but concede they are unable to say whether it is more or less blundersome in either historical or comparative perspective (p. x). It is claimed that blunders are numerous (p. ix), but no systematic review of the evidence is presented to back this up – we simply have to take the word of these seasoned observers of British politics. Indeed, it is a little surprising that King and Crewe admit to selecting their twelve cases “… from a much longer list compiled from the suggestions of a large number of former ministers, senior officials and political commentators” (Crewe 2014, Political Insight). This would seem methodologically problematic given that in-group biases are one of the factors famously associated with policy disasters; such as in the seminal work of Janis (1972) on groupthink. Should we trust the judgement of the people who were at the scene of the crime as to what happened and who was to blame? This seems at risk of the ‘cultural disconnect’ that the authors warn about.
For a study of government blunders, there is a much greater focus on high politics – in the form of ministerial and departmental manoeuvrings – than the reasons why policies fail and how the choice of particular policy instruments matters. Accordingly, blunders are selected as ‘occasions on which ministers and officials failed to achieve their declared objectives’ (p. 6). This is a clear benchmark for identification of political blundering, but does not allow for a more critical and systematic evaluation of why things go wrong. Take the case of the Millennium Dome discussed in Chapter 8. This was an unmitigated political disaster for the Blair Government, with ministerial hubris playing some part. However, in terms of construction and delivery the Dome did not suffer the magnitude of cost overrun typically incurred in the management of mega-projects – rising just 4% from the forecast expenditure in its May 1997 budget (NAO 2002, p. 2). The financial difficulties of the Dome were instead due to over-optimistic expectations about revenue from commercial sponsors and ticket revenues – which left the government-owned company insolvent. Further, the confused governance of the Dome project can be traced to attempts to deliver millennium celebrations as a public-private partnership, before the Blair government even took office in the 1990s. This decision led to a protracted, disruptive and ultimately futile outsourcing process, with the private sector unwilling to take on the risks attached to the project, which Labour inherited in 1997. The Dome blunder can thus be attributed to a combination of path dependence (inheritance of the project from a previous government), flawed assumptions in the choice of policy instrument (i.e. co-delivery of the project with the private sector) and cognitive biases of decision-makers (over-confidence and commitment of the sunk cost fallacy once the project was underway). None of these conditions/pathologies are particularly unique to British government, however. King and Crewe’s choice of the term ‘blunder’ is appealing because it cultivates the image of naive ministers and civil servants making avoidable mistakes. However, it distracts from more fundamental questions about why the institutional structures of the state fail to prevent errors due to individual or collective decision-making. As Moran (2001, p. 415) argues, the sustained influence of blunders in high politics can be attributed to ‘incomplete penetration of the regulatory state’. This arguably provides a far more revealing and fundamental explanation of the Dome fiasco and other policy failures.
Similarly, many of the examples identified as cases of policy successes are open to challenge. King and Crewe cite the organisation of the London 2012 Olympics as a policy success (p. 21). While undoubtedly extremely popular and a triumph for the government in terms of operation of the sporting event, in policy and planning terms the Olympics was still error-prone across a range of criteria for evaluation: its cost exceeded the original forecasts by more than 200% (Jennings 2012), the army had to be drafted in to provide security after the contractor G4S failed to supply the agreed number of security guards, and the promised legacy of increased sports participation has not materialised. While a political success, the policy story was distinctly mixed. Similarly, government preparations for the swine flu epidemic of 2009 are cited as another example of success (p. 20). Subsequent scientific evidence has suggested, however, that that the vaccines were ultimately ineffective, leading the Daily Mail to exclaim “Ministers blew £650 MILLION on useless anti-flu drugs” (10 April 2014). One person’s policy blunder is another person’s success, a point which surely more should have been made of.
In some regards The Blunders of our Governments is in line with a healthy tradition of self-depreciating tendencies of the British ruling class, which has endured a crisis of self-confidence since the breakup of the British Empire and in successive decades of crises of the economy and political institutions. King and Crewe’s thesis is premised on the belief that governments screw up too much, and that this ailment is distinctly British in its origins. On the other hand, it perpetuates a dangerous in-group view of the ruling club – based on the stories told by key actors – without asking searching questions about the tools that government opts to use and broader trends in modes of delivery of public services for the modern state and why these do not avert policy blunders. Its lack of reference to comparative examples (such as the cost overruns and technical difficulties in constructing both Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Germany and Bibliothèque nationale de France) is similarly symptomatic of this insularity, and of the lack of systematic analysis of evidence to back up the far-reaching assertions offered. As an account written by insiders with connections to the political elite this book is highly revealing of an outlook of the challenges of governing, which is rather charming but at the same time disabling. It presents only a faux challenge to the political elite and will readily be embraced by them as it reflects their worldview. Nothing important is likely to change as a result of its diagnosis, which given its subject matter might be considered disappointing from the perspective of many citizens.
Crewe, Ivor. (2014). ‘Why is Britain badly governed? Policy blunders 1980-2010.’ Political Insight 5(1): 4-9.
Dunleavy, Patrick. (1995). ‘Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK’s Record.’ Public Policy and Administration 10(2): 52-70.
Janis, Irving. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.
Jennings, Will. (2012). ‘Why Costs Over-Run: Risk, Optimism and Uncertainty in Budgeting for the London 2012 Olympics.’ Journal of Construction Management and Economics 30(6): 455-462.
Moran, Michael. (2001). ‘Not Steering but Drowning: Policy Catastrophes and the Regulatory State.’ The Political Quarterly 72(4): 414–427.
Moran, Michael. (2003). The British Regulatory State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
National Audit Office. (2002). Winding-up the New Millennium Experience Company Limited. London: The Stationery Office.