Let’s start with the good stuff. It is a fantastic canter through some of the most interesting public sector projects of the last thirty years. The book takes complex topics – for example Britain’s exit from the ERM - and makes them easy to understand and very readable. And their reflections on the systemic reasons why government finds it difficult to manage projects and their suggestions for how to deal with them are challenging and applicable beyond the realms of Whitehall to the wider public sector. So I would heartily recommend this book to anyone with an interest in public life.
What a shame, then, that this excellence is compromised by being presented within such a negative framework.
I have two problems with it. First of all, it reinforces the mistaken prejudices about the public sector’s incompetence. Near the start of the book, the authors suggest that ‘The successes of governments are apt to pass unnoticed or else be taken for granted. They should not be.’ Quite right too. And then they proceed to list some of the successes that governments have had in recent times. This takes up thirteen pages. The blunders get the remaining 412 pages of the book. This is not a recipe for helping people notice government successes.
Second, 'blunder' is an emotive and problematic word. Any good organisation will tell you that it wants people to make mistakes. If you are not making mistakes then you are not innovating and taking risks. The challenge is to distinguish between silly mistakes (blunders) and justifiable mistakes. But there are plenty of shades of grey. As they acknowledge in the book, it can be difficult to tell when politicians have really blundered because like the rest of us ‘politicians live in an unpredictable and sometimes intractable world….They may just be unlucky.’
Often therefore the blunder is very much in the eye of the beholder. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that once committed to writing about blunders, the authors are inclined to see them everywhere. To my mind, the bulk of the cases highlighted in this book actually sound like understandable mistakes made by highly intelligent, well-intentioned people making big changes in very complicated areas.
Let me give you two examples: first, the mis-selling of pensions in the 1980’s. In response to radical but largely sensible legislation private companies mis-sold pension (or to put it another way lied) to hundreds of thousands of workers who lost millions of pounds (read the chapter for the full description!). The case for this being a blunder – in the book’s terms – rests on the charge that these problems were ‘clearly foreseen by at least a few observers’. The book goes onto quote three such observers. Were these observers leading economists at the time? Or leading pension experts or even leading journalists? No, they were all opposition Labour politicians. My guess is that you could find such opposition on almost every piece of government legislation ever delivered. Ignoring such advice offered by your political adversaries hardly counts as a blunder. The reality is that it was a very complicated change which was ultimately worth making but which produced ripples which nobody could reasonably have been expected to anticipate.
The second concerns the Individual Learning Accounts, or as the book calls the episode ‘The great training robbery’. Again this seems to have been a bold and innovative programme – just the sort of thing we say we want our governments to try more. It encouraged people outside formal learning to get more education by giving them financial inducements to buy their own courses (again it’s worth reading their chapter for a fuller description!). The book describes this as a ‘well-nigh perfect example of a policy blunder’. Like the mis-selling of pension it became vulnerable to widespread fraud which the politicians had failed to anticipate. They also appeared to fail to heed the warnings from pilot studies – a legitimate charge to bring against them. But what makes this example irksome is that the organisation charged with delivering the scheme, Capita, was from the private sector. Somehow, the book implies, the government should have foreseen the different types of fraud that were likely to arise from this wide-ranging, complex and ambitious scheme – even when the private sector company with experience of such schemes could not.
In summary, the book is troubling partly because it adds lustre to the lazy stereotype of the incompetent public sector and partly because it will make the public sector yet more cautious about innovating and taking risks. I hope that the authors make up for it soon by writing 'The successes of our governments'.