I commented the other day on possible New Zealand cases of government blunders. My former colleague, Ian Harrison, reminded me of his work on another possible candidate, the Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Bill, currently before a Select Committee, which is due to report by the end of July. Ian’s trenchant assessment of MBIE’s work leading up to this bill made pretty sobering reading the first time I went through it, and it was no less disquieting the second time. I’ve seen no sign of any sort of substantial rebuttal to the thrust of the analysis Ian presents.
I’m certainly not indifferent to earthquake risk. I live on the side of a hill in Wellington. And my parents’ apartment block was severely damaged (and later demolished) in the February 2011 earthquake. But this bill just does not look like the fruit of good public policy making, cost-effectively addressing real and substantive risks. Perhaps the work of the Select Committee might yet limit the prospective damage and costs?
Eric Crampton discussed some of Ian’s earlier work a couple of years ago. This suggestion made a lot of sense:
There’s a good case for having liability rules or standards for buildings that the public is forced to attend by the state: courtrooms, prisons, public licensing offices and the like. We can’t use a revealed preference argument around risk acceptance for those venues. But for other buildings where entry is voluntary, what’s wrong with mandating signs advising the public that “Engineering assessment suggests this building has (very low, below average, average, above average, seriously high risk) of falling down in case of earthquake. Entry is at own risk.”
Ian’s focus is bureaucratic failures. I particularly enjoyed this, perhaps somewhat jaundiced, list of factors that lead official agencies, however well-intentioned, towards bad outcomes.
As King and Crewe’s book reflects, officials will make plenty of mistakes, but cases that rise to the level of “blunders” hardly ever result from the efforts of officials alone.