The Academicians based in or around Oxford met recently for one of their bi-annual seminars with dinner at Kellogg College, Oxford, at the invitation of its President, Professor Jonathan Michie AcSS, a member of the Academy’s Council. The Academy’s President, Professor Sir Ivor Crewe AcSS, spoke about his recent award-winning book ‘The Blunders of Our Governments‘, which he produced with Professor Anthony King.
He told a group of 14 Academicians and guests about the origins of the book and the process of bringing it together. Fifty years ago, when he was an undergraduate, the UK political system was highly regarded as being stable, with decisive elections, a supportive civil service producing effective governance. It was evident that this had changed: recent low poll turnouts, drops in political party membership and a widespread lack of regard for the political system amongst the general public show a clear change of view. Government seems to have moved from being part of the solution to being part of the problem.
Part of the reason for this, Sir Ivor said, is that UK governments often get things wrong, and often do so very badly. Whilst acknowledging that the public sector was far from unique in its ability to blunder, he and his co-author decided to look just at government. They confined their study to the past 30 years and to domestic policy.
They defined a ‘blunder’ for the purposes of the study as a government initiative intended to achieve one or more stated objectives which: fails totally to achieve these objectives; wastes large sums of public money; causes widespread human distress; is abandoned or reversed; and where the problems should have been foreseen. He set this firmly in the context of democracy as ‘institutionalised disappointment’ and noted that there were many other examples of problems such as: policy disappointments where outcomes were very modest, wrong judgment calls that were justifiable at the time; and sins purely of omission. A list of 12 blunders is examined in the book through interviews with the 80 people involved in each initiative, many of whom were now happy to talk frankly about what went wrong, since they were no longer involved. He noted that there had only been one resignation from all of these blunders – Mrs Thatcher – and that lack of accountability seemed to be a common tale.
Outlining some of the key blunders well known to us all, including the Poll Tax of 1990, which led to riots, the Child Support Agency that left mothers and children worse off whilst costing more to run than it ever collected, and the huge waste of public money incurred by MetroNet (the public-private partnership for modernising the London Underground), Sir Ivor and Professor King analysed the various causes. These ranged from situations where a deficient structure or culture inevitably led to bad decision making to behavioural causes where over-confidence or ignorance led to disaster.
Deficits of deliberation and of accountability were common features and some of this is due to the structure of UK government – the decisiveness for which the UK system is still praised has a downside: it can facilitate policymaking from ministerial whim. The system itself does not encourage deliberation; in fact, it can actively discourage it, and a common feature of many of these blunders was a suspicion of ‘vested interest’ from those who could have provided helpful advice. A lack of pre-legislative hearings within Parliament has meant a lack of scrutiny and missed opportunities for accessing expertise and knowledge. A high turnover of ministers and high level civil servants adds to the lack of continuity and accountability, and the urgency born of transience in post and what he termed ‘a culture of ministerial hyperactivity’ is another factor in over-hasty initiatives.
After a very entertaining talk, discussion ranged over a variety of topics as members present brought their own experiences to the table, and ideas were floated about how the social science community in particular could help avert these problems in future. After drinks and chat, ten of those present stayed on for a delightful dinner and to continue the earlier discussion.
The Academy is keen for other local groups of Academicians to get together. This model has worked well and could be adapted to other settings. If you are interested in organising a local gathering, please contact the Academy office and we will be very happy to help with putting you in contact with other locally-based Academicians.