The nicely-timed book of the new political season (published next week) is The Blunders of Our Governments by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King. The authors say they don’t want to point the finger of blame at individuals (though according to reviews they do put the boot in at times), rather they set out to examine what they call the ‘systemic defects’ in government that lead to policy disasters. But ultimately it does come down to people, and in particular the rise of the ‘professionalised’ political class that increasingly lacks the practical experience required for wise decision-making.
Crewe and King’s roll-call of blunders includes both the familiar and the neglected - from the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, the mis-selling of personal pensions and the Millennium Dome, to the private public partnership (PPP) imposed on London Underground and individual learning accounts. As the authors sensibly acknowledge, policymaking is difficult and there’s never been an age of error-free government; instead Crewe and King focus on what they call ‘unforced errors’ – the big, expensive cock-ups which could have been avoided if ministers and officials responsible had acted with less haste, listened to expert advice and tested their ideas before committing themselves.
For Crewe and King, part of the problem is what they call the ’operational disconnect’ between the ‘grandees’ who dream up policy and the ‘poor bloody infantry’ who have to implement it. (In a book published last month, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it, Richard Bacon MP and Christopher Hope make the related point that at senior levels government is composed mostly of people who are not interested or experienced in management and implementation).
Then there’s the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’, where the people centrally involved in decision-making strive to maintain cohesion by ignoring unwelcome information, warning signs or external criticism (which perhaps helps to explain why, as Crewe and King note, one of the other recurring factors in these cock-ups is a reliance on a small number of suppliers and consultants).
A greater openness in the policymaking process could of course help to challenge this, but Crewe and King also point to a ‘deficit of deliberation’ in which the chaotic throng of different interests and duties competing for control and for ministerial time means that the right people are not consulted. In this context, there is an almost complete failure to heed the outcome of consultation exercises unless they reinforce the view that ministers have already reached.
This (largely self-imposed) intellectual isolation can be compounded by ’cultural disconnect’ - the failure of ministers and mandarins to notice that not everyone in the country lives like them. Add to this an ignorance of the systems they are trying to affect, for example public services, and what actually might help to improve them, and the obvious conditions for cock-ups are all in place.
As Crewe and King’s contemporary history of catastrophe shows, these issues aren’t confined to governments of any one political party. But inevitably, most reviews of the book have referenced the present Government and how it compares to pervious regimes, which is to say whether it appears to have learned anything from the mistakes of the past. Crewe and King suggest that recent governments seem to have learned little. As they wrote recently:
“The British, especially the English, don’t talk that much about politics, but when they do it’s usually with a mixture of indignation and cynicism. ‘The Government is completely out of touch …it doesn’t know what it’s doing …the politicians are a bunch of comedians …they have cocked things up again’. We have observed and written on British politics for over 40 years and think that the general public has got it broadly right. Governments do cock things up far too often and quite unnecessarily. We are badly governed, probably worse so than in the past, and almost certainly worse so than in some democracies elsewhere.”
Reviewers - including those from newspapers that are strongly pro-Conservative - have recognised how the present Government is repeating history (both as tragedy and farce), often at a faster rate and on a larger scale than many previous governments. It’s still relatively early days, but Universal Credit and HS2 are just two likely candidates for a future edition of Crewe and King’s omnibus of omnishambles.
These are only the largest examples coming down the tracks of course. From the NHS reforms to breaking-up the probation service, the bedroom tax to exam changes, and even to austerity itself, the Government is setting a record-breaking pace in terms of policy pratfalls. Many of the reasons are apparent from Crewe and King’s analysis - ministers acting in haste, driven by an ideological group think that can’t contemplate alternatives, side-stepping and undermining consultation wherever possible, insufficient testing of ideas before committing to a decision, a refusal to listen to experts and to stridently defend decisions and attack any experts who voice concerns, and a reliance on a small coterie of advisors, think tanks and consultants who are always ready to sell (and profit from) the ‘next big idea’.
(In this respect, the Government’s propensity to u-turns, on some issues at least, has to be regarded as a positive thing).
The result is that the political class is costing us billions, and whatever Crewe and King’s rather abstract recommendations, the political class can’t fix the problem because they are the problem. The irony is that the Government already knows the answer, because it has described it in its pronouncements on open policymaking. But caught between a broken policymaking process captured by the political class, and a recognition that to improve it would mean engaging genuine expertise from outsiders, if the Government’s approach to government seems deliberately blunder-prone, then that’s because it is.
Next week we’re off to the party conferences, to see the political class up-close.