I don’t intend to make a habit of doing this, but I have felt moved to write a brief book review.
The book is called ‘The Blunders of our Governments’ and I was initially put off by the sensationalist-sounding title of a book that appeared much too thin for such a large landscape of possibilities. Finally, I was intrigued enough to look within. The book was purchased forthwith and I’ve been unable to put it down since.
Far from being sensationalist, the book is an incisive examination of the workings of government over the last 35-40 years or so. A number of seriously poor and extremely expensive decisions have been identified (the ‘blunders’) and are used more as case studies to illustrate the defects inherent in government decision-making and how long the wrong paths are followed until inevitable collapse or reversal follows. The writers studiously avoid making any party political points and observe that the colour of parties is largely irrelevant in their capacity to take foolish decisions.
There are some surprises. First the sheer enormity of the wasted money is breathtaking. Secondly, there were some disasters that I’d never heard about, such as the short-lived assets recovery agency. Of interest to readers of this blog is the coverage of Metronet and how the PPP was allowed to happen. The Poll Tax is one of the earlier examples offered. Nobody, it seems, wanted to be the one to point out it couldn’t work, though they all thought it. It is so very difficult to listen to the constant bleating about the need to save taxpayer’s money in the context of a dysfunctional organism that can waste tens of billions of our money time after time with no lessons learned (the book hints at hundreds of billions over the period of its review – yes billions with a ‘b’). The main ‘surprise’ is the near complete immunity that our politicians and senior civil servants have from any kind of resulting sanction. If a company director (but maybe not a bank director) was as reckless and incompetent as some of the actors in this horror story have been they would have been locked up. One reason, of course, is the frequency with which ministers move.
Some myths are debunked. For example the myth that a minister is in any way accountable for the actions of his department. Unless a specific decision can be pinned on an individual minister there is (and never was) any mantra that says they must either resign or be made to go, and the odd cases where this has occurred (eg Lord Carrington) are exceedingly few and untypical. It is true many ministers do resign or are encouraged to go, but usually this is for, let us say, ‘personal’ reasons rather than political ones.
The book, in seeking to discover how appalling decisions are arrived at and then pursued, observes that nobody is ever, actually, in charge. Either nobody, or in a very real sense, too many people. And often the wrong people. At no point do the authors suggest that the people making policy or finding ways to implement the machinery decided upon are in any way unintelligent or less than well-intentioned. One of the problems, it seems that the ministers live in a very strange world of their own, a world that predisposes them to imagine that everyone else lives as they do. The bright people (often consultants) who help to develop policy have little experience of the world either. The bright and helpful officials who are then asked to deliver the resulting policy are either not consulted at the right point in the process, or, astonishingly, in many cases they are not consulted at all. There is a whole section on this extraordinary way of going about things.
I do not jest. You can’t make this kind of stuff up!
The book finishes with a range of helpful and practical suggestions for improving matters, but in essence it concludes that the main problem with government is nothing to do with party politics or any of that kind of thing, it is the way the entire structure of government is arranged. It just isn’t fit for purpose, and it seems ill-adapted to a complicated, connected world where increasingly events and policy opportunities are entirely out of its control.
I do commend the book. I had quite independently concluded that government systems and processes were not fit for purpose, so I suppose I would be keen on an evidence-based book which had arrived at a similar conclusion. With an election next year, I think as many people as possible should read this book before the next luckless batch of political cannon-fodder comes preaching at our doorsteps to read out their prepared PR-speak briefs at us, whilst taking care not to say anything that will commit themselves to anything firm. Ask them what they are going to do to sort out the mess the book alludes to before the final twenty per cent of the population finally gives up on politics! If parliament isn’t going to fix it, then who is then? There is in fact a whole chapter about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny to which the worst cases were subject, and how meaningless a contribution an average MP from any party can make to a potentially unravelling disaster.
There is something very wrong with the decision making process itself, the book asserts, and there are in fact no constraints placed on what is attempted to be done, however inane. If disaster is possible (and Murphy’s law suggests that if disaster is possible then at some point it will happen), government policy will plough headlong into it and the only question is how big and expensive it will be. There isn’t even any evidence of risk analysis being carried out, let alone any contingency plans to handle any unravelling, or even a Plan B in case it fully unravels. This would be unforgivable in any modestly large project, but is that much harder to understand, or forgive, when the magnitude of these errors are considered.
I am afraid that if you do read the book, the scale of apparent incompetence, and the money wasted thereby, might make you quite angry at what people are doing in our name, without any kind of come-back at all. It isn’t often a book will do that.
I have no doubt that the authors have done a good job with a difficult subject. One is Millennium Professor of British Government at University of Essex and the other is Master of University College Oxford. I feel that it is very likely the facts reported are likely to be substantially accurate and the inferences drawn measured and reasonable. (They are more measured than I could have achieved).
By the way, there is an entertaining epilogue of current potential ‘disasters in waiting’ to give you something to think about during the New Year.
The Blunders of Our Governments. Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe. Oneworld Books. 496pp. No more than £9.99.