The Government Reform Series: Westminster-Style Blunders Familiar to Washington

Editor’s Note: Government failure is something everyone complains about, but does little to address. Over the next two weeks, FixGov will review work on government reform: identifying problems in the federal government and offering solutions to get government back in working order. In this post, Thomas Mann reviews
The Blunders of Our Governments,
by political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe.

In the swamp of our extreme party polarization and dysfunctional government, we are apt to find ourselves yearning for a more decisive political system, one not prone to gridlock, constrained by multiple veto points, or vulnerable to interest group demands. We, as a society, long for a government capable of linking well-developed policies with pragmatic implementation strategies and managed by a highly competent civil service. That is to say, we are yearning for Westminster-style parliamentary government.

If you find yourself falling under that spell, the best antidote is to pick up a copy of The Blunders of Our Governments (Oneworld Publications, 2014), written by the distinguished and politically-savvy political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. The authors are erudite and entertaining—rigorous in analyzing the endless “cock-ups” in British politics over the past three-and-a-half decades and hilarious in recounting the colorful details. They are blind neither to comparable failures in the private sector nor to notable successes of UK governments past and present. This is most assuredly not a jeremiad against government, but instead a thoughtful exploration of why its initiatives often and unnecessarily fail.

King and Crewe draw their title and subject matter from James Madison’s ruminations in the Federalist Papers about the “many monuments of deficient wisdom” in the work of America’s thirteen original states. They define a blunder “as an episode in which a government adopts a specific course of action in order to achieve one or more objectives and, as a result largely or wholly of its own mistakes, either fails completely to achieve those objectives, or does achieve some or all of them but at a totally disproportionate cost, or else does achieve some or all of them but contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of collateral damage in the form of unintended and undesired consequences.” Failures flowing from judgment calls, in circumstances of uncertainty and on the basis of limited evidence, are not defined as blunders, nor are controversial government initiatives which pursue objectives not shared by the authors or other people. Not all mistakes made by governments are a result of blunders; some are sins of omission rather than commission, reflecting inattention to chronic problems.

The authors also distinguish between blunders and scandals. Most political scandals in Britain have nothing to do with blunders as the authors define them, more involving sex, petty crime and low-grade financial malpractice than gross governmental incompetence. Finally, the actions of government need to be judged only in the fullness of time. Initiatives widely regarded as blunders at an early stage of their lives may look better later on. The reverse may be true as well.

Blunders have been a feature of governments since the beginning of time. King and Crewe very briefly review some of the historical highlights (or lowlights) and the postwar British experience before examining systematically their country’s experience in recent decades. The horror stories begin with the Thatcher government’s colossal blunder introducing a poll tax in the 1980s.Their judgment couldn’t be harsher: “The poll tax failed to achieve its objectives, led to rioting in the streets, wasted many millions of pounds, occasioned much human misery and ultimately cost the prime minister her job. . . Every dire prediction made about the poll tax was sooner or later fulfilled. . . In the end, their failure was abject and total.”

What follows is a series of concise but richly informative case studies of telling blunders by a succession of Conservative, New Labour, and Tory-led Coalition governments. These include the mis-selling of personal pensions, in which the full scale of the debacle was clearly foreseen by key observers but ignored by a Conservative government that blithely went its own way; an initially popular but ultimately universally condemned program to reduce the dependence on public benefits of children of single mothers by extracting support from absent fathers; a decision to exit the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Community, with profoundly negative consequences for the British economy in the short term and for the Conservative party over the longer term; the conspicuous flop of The New Millennium Experience, known widely as “the Dome”, the principal manifestation of New Labour’s post-1997 “Cool Britannia” project; the birth and sudden death of individual learning accounts, a program central to the public philosophy of Tony Blair and his New Labour party advisors; the botched effort, led by Gordon Brown as shadow chancellor, chancellor and prime minister, to import from the United States the strikingly effective Earned Income Tax Credit; a failed effort to extract from criminals the proceeds of their criminal activities; the UK government’s inability, over many years, to pay England’s farmers in good order and time the monies owing to them from the European Union; a series of egregious IT blunders, with serious harm to individuals and firms and at massive costs to British taxpayers, culminating in “the veritable RMS Titanic of IT disasters: the doomed-from-the-beginning NHS National Program for IT;” a costly though not widely known public-private partnership (PPP or “Metronet”) for the maintenance and upgrading of the London underground, established by New Labour in 1998, R.I.P. 2007; and the abortive effort by a Labour government to establish national identity cards.

King and Crewe, following their own guideline to judge the actions of government in the fullness of time, are careful not to identify the blunders of David Cameron’s administration. But their pessimism and growing concern about the blunder-prone British government comes through loud and clear in an epilogue which identifies many signs of botched policy ventures, none more striking than the radical overhaul of the National Health Service in England, and little evidence that the Coalition government has learned from the failures of its predecessors. Interestingly, they suspend judgment on what may prove to be the most consequential of actions taken by this government—the macroeconomic management of David Cameron and George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Here, the authors see mainly difficult judgment calls and high uncertainty over the ultimate consequences which cannot be dismissed as outright blunders. “The present government’s macroeconomic policies may possibly be misguided, but they are hardly the product of either stupidity or carelessness.”

King and Crewe have much to say about why British government is so blunder-prone. These are the sections of the book—Part III on human errors and Part IV on system failures—that will be of most interest and utility to those concerned about governmental dysfunction in the United States. In spite of the considerable constitutional, institutional and historical differences between the two countries, it is instructive to view one country’s experiences (and struggles) with the formulation and implementation of public policies through the lenses of the other. I hasten to add, such an effort comes not with the expectation of identifying simple transfers of policies or unknown best public management practices but rather to deepen our understanding of the successes and failures of our own system of government.

The authors find human factors more generally—not the shortcomings of specific individuals—to be partly to blame for the blunders of government. Cultural disconnect between politicians and civil servants, on the one hand, and citizens, on the other, is one such factor. Projecting onto others sets of values, attitudes and whole ways of life that are not remotely like their own can produce assumptions that are radically wrong. Group-think in government councils is another. The authors describe intellectual prejudices as unquestioned beliefs embodying informal theories on how the world works now and how it could be made to work in the future. These prejudices fiercely work against reality testing and pragmatism. The outcome is an operational disconnect between policymaking and implementation that is another frequent source of blunders by government. Finally, ministers and senior officials are sometimes fail to put in the hard work necessary to make policies successful because they simply lack the motivation to do so. “Panic, symbols and spin” frequently predominate over problem solving.

King and Crewe’s exploration of system failures merits the closest attention. The similarities between our two countries are surprising. British government is not a single, unified entity but a conglomerate of fragmented, disparate agencies and actors. And prime ministers have less command and control of their administrations than is commonly thought. Number 10 may be too weak to ride herd over warring departments and impetuous ministers.

The rapid turnover of ministers robs the government of experience and expertise at critical junctures of policy development and implementation. And since Margaret Thatcher became prime minister with strong convictions, great ambitions, and deep skepticism of the traditional civil service, ministers are expected to be activists—the dynamos of change—not compliant partners of senior officials. That has made the latter reluctant to speak truth to power. Yet those ministers are seldom held accountable for the blunders that occur under their watch. Ministerial accountability remains very much a myth in contemporary British politics, with blame being directed to the ever-silenced civil service.

Asymmetries of expertise and knowledge haunt government at almost every level. UK government, like that in the United States, depends heavily on outside contractors for the design and delivery of public services. It has become increasingly ill-equipped and unprepared to manage the complex projects associated with new policy initiatives and oftentimes relies on private firms to oversee the work of the vast private workforce of government.

King and Crewe describe parliament as largely peripheral to policy development and implementation. No surprise there. “Parliament as an institution occasionally barks, frequently nips at its master’s heels but very seldom actually bites.”

All of these factors, in the authors’ view, turn the impressive advantage of British government—the freedom to take decisive action—into a liability. “The only trouble with a system in which it is easy to take decisions is that it is every bit as easy to take the wrong decisions.” What makes British government so blunder-prone is its deficit of deliberation. A power-hoarding system weighs against a careful and informed weighing of options. The mass media is antithetical to deliberation. Intense partisanship is also its enemy.

The situation is even worse than that. British governments are not just blunder-prone but slow off the mark. “They have left things undone that sorely needed to be done. . . In truth, they prevaricate, procrastinate and defer as often as they decide.”

The book offers sober conclusions, especially to American reformers looking across the Atlantic for ways of improving government performance. Yet the richness of their analysis of the blunders of British governments could and should upgrade the thinking about how best to deal with the problems of politics and policymaking in our own.