The Blunders of our Governments

British governments that is.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a little about the recent American book Why Government Fails So Often?   The Blunders of our Governments is a nice British complement to it.  Anthony King and Ivor Crewe have both been professors of government, and Crewe is now Master of University College, Oxford.  Unlike Peter Schuck, the author of the American book, they don’t say anything much about themselves, but it is not hard to deduce that they are probably instinctively (and perhaps analytically) inclined to believe in the good that government can do.   Holland, Germany, and the Nordics appear to be the preferred models of government process.

The chapter “An array of successes” begins “governments often succeed, far more often than they are usually given credit for”.  If true that would be good,  given how much of society’s resources governments command.  But the case was somewhat undermined when the first great success they listed was the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, and the associated restrictions on urban housebuilding etc.  I doubt many first home buyers near London –  facing even more ruinous prices than those in Auckland –  would give it the same degree of credit.  The authors might want to check on economic historian Nicholas Crafts’ recent paper on the role that largely-unrestricted housebuilding played in Britain’s 1930s recovery.

The book focuses on eleven specific “blunders” of British governments over the last 30 years or so ( like Schick they exclude foreign affairs and defence).  This isn’t just about wrong judgement calls, or unforeseeable changes of circumstance, or about a partisan view of the merits of what a government was trying to achieve.  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 contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of “collateral damage” in the form of unintended and undesired consequences….financial, human, political or some combination of all three.

The first part of the book is a series of 11 chapters on each of the “blunder” episodes.  Some will be familiar, and will live in history –  the poll tax debacle in particular.  Others will be less familiar, especially to New Zealand readers.  They include the British exit from the ERM, private pensions mis-selling, individual training credits, the Millennium Dome, plans for national ID cards, and the public-private partnerships around the London Underground.  They are equal opportunity critics –  examples are drawn from both the Thatcher and Major Conservative governments and the Labour governments of Blair and Brown.  The authors appear to have a special distaste for the current government, but acknowledge that it is too soon to decide whether any of the examples they point to will eventually be seen as “blunders”.

The second half of the book turns to trying to distill lessons: why do so many things go so badly wrong?    They point to a variety of factors:

  • Cultural disconnects between the worlds of ministers and officials and those of the ordinary Briton.
  • A lack of effective political accountability
  • The rise of a process-management mentality in the public service
  • Groupthink
  • Fear of the consequences –  especially for public servants (but also for junior ministers) – of asking questions or expressing doubt (the name Gordon Brown was often mentioned in this context).
  • The focus in political management on spin and symbolism at the expense of substance.
  • The relative weakness of Parliament (although they note that backbench rebellions  –  not often visible in New Zealand –  have become much more common in recent decades.

It is a book worth reading for those interested in good government, and policy and operational processes in New Zealand.  There are enough similarities between the United Kingdom and New Zealand –  institutionally and culturally –  that many of the issues raised are likely to ring true to some extent in New Zealand.  In some respects, the challenges here are even greater: fewer “veto players”, less external policy scrutiny, and so on.  And it is not as if a book of this sort, that might attract a fairly wide readership among informed lay people, is likely to be written in New Zealand.

But as I read the book, I was jotting down episodes that might count as New Zealand policy “blunders”, on the King-Crewe definition.  Examples that came to mind included:

  • The Think Big programme of the early 1980s
  • The Novopay teachers’ pay system
  • The Reserve Bank’s experiment with the Monetary Conditions Index in the late 1990s
  • The attempt to introduce public hospital part-charges in the early 1990s.

There are probably many others.  Some might argue that the entire policy/operations split in state sector reform in the 1980s was an example, but then others might argue that the reversal of those reforms now underway could yet prove to be the “blunder”.  What of the rushed legislative powers over Christchurch taken following the earthquakes, or the Deposit Guarantee Scheme (and the eventual heavy losses)?  It might be easier to think of local body debacles –  the Otago Stadium, the Hamilton street-race, or (for those of a certain age), Wellington’s Sesqui.

I’m not looking to generate an argument about individual items on the list (a couple of which I was involved in myself).  But it is important to recognise, and build our institutions around the recognition, that “blunders” happen here too.  Citizens should expect that ministers and officials  learn from the blunders, and the propensities that give rise to them.   There have been recent substantial legislative changes around the state sector – including the bestowal on the State Services Commissioner of the rather grandiose title, “Head of the State Sector”.   But to what extent have these changes been informed by rigorous analysis of government successes and failures, here and abroad?  There is certainly a strong sense that process-management has primacy in appointments the Commission makes, and in the development processes it has underway.  Equally, there are not-infrequently heard doubts as to just how much free and frank advice and the contest of ideas is welcomed, either within departments and agencies, or from departments to ministers.

I don’t know the answer to the specific question in the previous paragraph, but I was mildly disconcerted that when I searched the State Services Commission’s website the last reference to “government failure” was from September 2003.  Perhaps reflecting my own biases, I also checked “analytical rigour”.  That wasn’t much more reassuring – the last reference was November 2003, almost 12 years ago.  Perhaps the absence is beginning to show?