Essex’s Blunders of UK Government

Anthony King and Ivor Crewe The Blunders of Our Governments OneWorld 2014 (Revised and Updated)

This is a University of Essex view of UK Governments, focussing on the period 1979 (Thatcher, Tory) to 2010 (End of Brown, Labour), with an Epilogue from June 2014 (the Tory/Liberal coalition).


We believe that there have been far too many [blunders] and that most … of them could have been avoided. [Once, British government] was astonishingly competent. … Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.

They screw up more often than most people realise. …

… Governments of both (sic) parties seem to blunder in much the same way … .

Part I: To begin with …

1 Blunders, judgement calls and institutions

We 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 compleletlt=y to achieve those objectives , or does achieve some or all of them at a totally disproportionate cost, or else … contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of “collateral damage” in the form of unintended and undesired consequences.

It is not enough that we don’t like the objectives.

2 An array of successes

The successes of governments are apt to pass unnoticed or else be taken for granted. They should not be.

The BBC, NHS, the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, house building 1950-1953, The Clean Air Act 1956, The Road Safety Act 1967, Decimalisation (1971), The Housing Act 1980, attracting Nissan to Sunderland, various Union legislation (1982-84), some early privatisations, the MMR vaccine, Citizens Charters, the minimum wage, smoking bans, the handling of the 2009 swine-flu pandemic and Gordon Brown’s response to the 2008 financial crisis and the 2012 London and Paralympic Games are all seen as successes, at least on their own terms. But …

Part II: Horror stories

3 Blunders past and present

The postwar Labour government … failed to draw up contingency plans to deal with the possibility, foreseen by some ministers, that severe fuel shortages might combine with an unusually cold winter to cause chaos.

[To] address a serious postwar shortage of vegatable oils … Ministers and their advisers chose to plant [peanuts] in thousands of acres that lacked both proper soil and adequate rainfall. [The scheme] imported more nuts for seed than it managed to harvest.

[The] disasterous 1956 Suez expedition [was] easily Britain’s most egregious postwar foreign-policy blunder.

Another … was … Blue Streak.

Concorde … quickly became known as “the flying white elephant”.

Possibly the biggest blunder committed by Harolf Wilson’s postwar 1964 Labour government was its decision not to devalue the pound … .

Two of the most spectacular government blunders of the postwar period … concerned industrial relations.

And so on …

More recent blunders (chapters 4-15)

The poll tax, pension mis-selling, the so-called ‘Child Support Agency’, exiting the ERM, the millenium dome, individual learning accounts, tax credits, the (criminal) Assets Recovery Agency, the single payment scheme for farming subsidies, many IT projects and London undeground renewal are all exposed at length as blunders. But why do they keep happening?

Part III: Human failures

16 Cultural Disconnect

Everyone projects onto others his or her lifestyles, preferences and attitudes. Some people do it all the time; most of us do it some of the time. … We call these kinds of assumptions “cultural disconnect”.

[In the case of the poll tax, a] minister who arrived later on the scene was blunt: “It needed exceptionally clever people to produce anything so stupid.” {Later, someone] said he still could not decide whether the ministers … had been guilty of “woolly thinking or no thinking.”

One [way to counteract cultural disconnect] is actively to seek out the views and draw on the experience of people on the other side of whichever cultural divide it is thought may exist – and also to draw on the experience of those who have direct dealings with people on the other side of that divide.

If piloting is not practicable, dummy runs and siumulations often are.

[Activists] … behaved as though they imagined that the subculture in which they were embedded was somehow represerntative of the culture of the majority of the whole nation.

17 Group-think

[Cultural ] disconnect … has a near neighbour … “group-think” [, and] they are frequently found cohabiting.

[Group-think] is liable to occur when the members of any face-to-face group feel under pressure to maintain the group’s cohesion or are anyway inclined to want to do that. [It] often does manifest itself in various pathological ways [such as an undue] “Yes, we can” attitude.

“When you are totally focussed on something, you forget to ask yourself whether it is the right thing to do.” [Chanelling Patton, one should realise that] “Everyone agrees. So we must be wrong.”

[Of The London underground fiasco:] Courtiers may have disagreed and argued among themselves; courtiers often do. But they seldom, perhaps never, reached out to others.

[The original group-think concept is] a purely psychological concept. But [it] can be extended … to refer to a variety of situations in which there exists such widespread agreement amoing the members of a group about the desirability of a given course of action that no threats to the groups’ internal cohesion ever arise.

[It] would have been a good idea “to have someone … to put up the case for the other side”.

[There] needs always to be “grit in the oyster”, at least one person present in all group discussions who has been assigned the task of arguing the case on the other side and of ferreting out potential defects in what otherwise seems an unassailable proposition. The danger, of course, is that if the individual in question is sufficiently persuasive … .

An alternative approach is .. to assign the same policymaking task to two or more groups … .

[Or] “after reaching a preliminary consensus about what seems to be the best policy alternative, the policymaking group should hold a ‘second-chance’ meeting at which the members are expected to express as vividly as they can all their residual doubts … ” [Perhaps lubricated by alcohol.]

[An excessively good presentation] priviledges the presenter in an unhealthy way and has the effect of discouraging critical discussion and analysis. It may also encourage group-think. PowerPoint is  a potentially dangerous instrument of persuasion.

Group-think … renders blundering more probable.

18 Prejudice and pragmatism

[Cultural] disconnect .. group-think [and] “intellectual prejudice” … can easily co-exist.

[Intellectual] prejudices are simplifying devices, presumptions, mental short-cuts, hunches even [which] typically embody informal theories concerning how the world works now and how it could be made to work in the future. [They] are likely to be influential because they often go unspecified and unstated [and so] they remain unchallenged. [Those] who hold them are likely to regard them as obvious truths, undeniable facts, things to be taken for granted.

Ronald Reagan’s first director of the Bureau of the Budget [opined] “The world was less manageable than he had imagined; this machine has too many crazy moving parts to incorporate into a single lucid theory.”

[Strong] prejudices seems to preclude … pragmatism – that is, a careful, dispassionate approach to problem solving, one that evaluates beliefs or theories in terms of the probable success of their practical application.

One probable consequence of intellectual prejudice, especially if it is combined with either cultural disconnect (or both) is that policymakers never get around to doing any contingency planning. There are no Plans B.

[They] neglected … to contemplate worst-case scenarios and to be clear in their own minds what they would do if one of their putative worst-case scenarios turned out to be what actually happened.

19 Operational disconnect

[Anyone] planning [an] operation should ideally be put in charge of it – and should know in advance that he is going to be put in charge of it.

No feature of the blunders … stands out more promninently – or more frequently – than the divorce between policymaking and implementation and, in human terms, between those who made policies and those charged with implementing them.

[The] frontline worker does not need to know a great deal about the organisation in which he or she works, but the top manager needs to have at least some grasp of what actually happens on or close to the front line.

[On the poll tax:] Everyone operated on the basis of false assuptions about the thinking of others without realsing that that was what they were doing.

Experience … suggests that mapping backwards, instead of relying solely on mapping forwards, concentrates the mind. It alerts planners to pitfalls (as well as, possibly, to previously undetected opportunities.)

The authors [of a US report on a cabinet blunder noted:] ” “Implementation … is not only something to be done after a decision, it is as much or more a thing to think about before decision, right along with substance.”

The report is critical of Next Steps agencies, which it blamed for many blunders.

[The] easy bit … is deciding what ought to be done: the hard bit is the doing of it, and the hard bit is likely to be very hard.

20 Panic, symbols and spin

Frequently the cry goes up, “Something must be done!”

The Dangerous Dogs Act, the two Firearms acts of 1997, the New Millenium Experience, the Assets Recovery Agency, attempts to introduce ID cards and The Fiscal Responsibility Act (2010) are given as examples of panic, symbols and spin.

All of the phenomena described in the last five chapters – cultural disconnect, group-think, intellectual prejudice, operational disconnect and symbolism and spin – can be found everywhere and in all walks of life. … But all of them are more pervasive in British government than is often realised.

Part IV: System failures

21 The centre cannot hold

British government is not a single, unified entity. [No] prime minister can command and control everything that goes on inside his or her administration.

By international standards, the British prime minister also has limited staff resources. There are not many people, and certainly not many policy experts and administrators, who are his people.

Commentators on British government frequently describe Whitehall departments as living their lives within “silos”. One can see what they mean … .

Neither the prime minister nor any other powerful institution at or near the centre of government is capable in practice of checking and balancing, let alone controlling and directing, much of what goes on elsewhere.

The dangers inherent in the routines of cabinet government is that matters will appear to have been thoroughly discussed and thrashed out when in fact they have not been. Proper form will conceal defective practice.

[Both] decision making and policy development have inevitably been devolved outwards, downwards and side ways to smaller, often ad hoc clusters of people .. individuals whom the prime minister or other senior ministers believe do actually have something to contribute. … “Decision are well made if the right people are in the room and they have all the available facts before them, on paper or orally, if those in the room feel free to challenge propositions and argue, and if the decisions are properly recorded and disseminated.”

A striking feature of the policymaking process that culminated in the blunders described in this book is that “the right people” were often not in the room and that neither the prime minisater or anyone else at the centre possessed both the knowledge and the clout “to challenge propositions and to argue”.

The prime minister’s Policy Unit … has been very small [with] neither the time nor the remit to act effectively, or at all, as an early-warning system, alerting the boss to potential blunders lying in wait and capable of briefing him, or organising a brief to him, on what might be done to avoid them.

22 Musical chairs

In Britian, holders of important portfolios come and go; in most other countries, they come and stay, at least for a while. {New] ministers have little or no idea what is required if their wonderfully brioght ideas are to be given practical effect.

[Ministers] have have every incentive to focus on the short term … .

23 Ministers as activists

[Officials], at least in many government departments and in many policy areas, have become remarkably reluctant to sopeak truth to power.

“No one had the balls to say, ‘Look, let’s stand back and reassess.'” [Civil] servants had failed to perform their historic function.

[Tony Blair’s former chief of staff] regards it as part of [civil servants’] job “to warn their ministers of the elephant traps into which they are about to walk … and they know where the traps are, unlike their minister”.

24 Accountability, lack of

The almost to total lack of accountability in the strong sense – of ministers being held to account for their actions and being penalised for their more egregious misjudgements and errors – is one of the most striking features of the British system of government. Or rather, it would be striking if only more people were aware of it.

The chances of anyone being held to account are also likely to be reduced if the blunder, however large, manifests itself … as a sequence of lesser blunders.

[The] Public Accoiunts Committee is specifically precluded by its remit from enquiring into either the formulation or the substance of government policy .. .

The National Audit Office … concerns itself with how efficiently and effectively government money is spent, not with how policy is formulated or with the wisdom or otherwise of the policy itself.

[Important] policy decisions … typically take years, sometimes even decades, … to play themselves out.

[Politicians lack any incentive] to think a long way ahead, to contemplate seriously the probable consequences for future generations of whatever it is that they do today,

Moral hazard is evidently a feature of policymaking in government as well as in economic life.

There would be a lot to be said for encouraging [relevant bodies] to assess how well government initiatives were continuing to achieve their declared objectives after, say, five, ten or twenty years.

25 A peripheral parliament

As a legislative assembly, the parliament of the United Kingdom is, much of the time, either peripheral or totally irrelevant. It might as well not exist.

[It] is defects in parliament’s institutions, practices and mindsets that have led government in Britain to be more blunder-prone than it needs to be or should be.

26 Asymetries of expertise

[Skills] shortages increase markedly the chances that gross blunders of the kind committed so frequentrly in the past will continue to be committed well into the future. [The] UK government appears destined to go on buying lemons by the basketful, always at other’s expense.

27 A deficit of deliberation

The activity of deliberation has three distinct but interconnected components:. The first is one of careful consideration, of weighing up. … The second .. is that of not being over hasty … . The third … is that of conferring and taking counsel, of reaching out. British politicians in general have a curious habit of functioning in crisis mode – at high speed and in an agitated state – even when no crisis exists. They seem to enjoy it. It seems to give many of them a high.

… Britain’s political system is a power-hoarding system … .

Ministers who take time to make up their minds are said to be dithering, and the same is likely to be said of the few minsitsers who publicly acknowledge that they are weighing up finely balanced arguments.

Understandably, ministers’ elemental fear of losing the next election is a great inducer of caution. It tempts them to put off tackling … “wicked issues”.

[Really serious deliberation is often best conducted in private, behind closed doors, in settings where people find it easier to change their minds and work out compromises.

Epilogue (June 2014)

[The] political process that led to the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was remarkably shambolic.

Whether civil servants did as they should have to warn Lansley of the practical and political elephants traps ahead is an open question … there was no-one in Number 10 they could talk to and, if need be, warn.

One of their principla aims was to take the NHS effectively out of politics, to create … “a machine tht would go of itself”. But any such effort was doomed from the start.

The handling of the bidding for the West Coast Mainline franchise during the 2010s undoubtedly was [a blunder]. [The] department had “yet again failed to learn from previous disasters”.

There were also blunders in the ‘bonfire of the quanqos’, the introduction of police commissioners, the increase in university tuition fees, attempts to limit net migration to below 100,000, the provision of staff for the 2012 Olympics, disability assessements and the introduction of NHS 111 to replace NHS Direct.

The book also puts seven initiatives on ‘negative watch’, including Universal Credit.

The errors of previous governments … have been been replicated almost uncannily. Cultural disconnect and operational disconnect … have been constantly in evidence. So have intellectual prejudice … and also … proness to to spinning and indulging in symbolic politics, … .

[People] throughout the UK … have … begun to regard constant blundering as the new normal, as something that just happens, something unavoidable. We disagree.


This book will make you gasp in disbelief and stamp your feet in rage … [The Guardian, quoted on the cover]

If this were true, it would be a severe indictment of British news coverage, let alone its investigative reporting. The book itself simply claims that blunders are more common, endemic even, than most people realise. It is in the examples and the analysis that the value of the book lies. Its diagnosis seems plausible, as far as it goes, and gains credence from having been reviewed in 2014. Its prognoses also seem sensible, but – as is clear from the review – had no impact.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the diagnosis is one that is largely familiar to generations of academics and civil servants, and not a few ministers. But what to do about it.  Blunders seem to be due to poor decision-making. Every generation accepts this of its predecessors and many take on board recommendations very similar to those of this book and improve. While this book provides a more compelling case for change than any I can think of, it begs the question: How do we know when w have improved enough? Given that not all are adept at good decisionj making (whatever we that would be), how do we identify particular instances where better decision making is required? What else, apart from this book, is needed to help improve?

I have been involved in too many attempts to improve decision making of many kinds, with partial success. The last UK governmment project was in 2010. It seemed to me that the policymakers were well clued up on all the above issues – perhaps they had been interviewed for this book – and all seemed set fair at last. But, it got immediately messed up right at the start of implementation – unusually soon. In my view a large part of the problem was that the project management policy was changed in ways that the operational policy makers didn’t seem to have anticipated, so that the management structure was compeletely inapprop[riate to the task at hand. Having read this book, I wonder if the management policy makers hadn’t also been involved in it, and had made some changes intended to reduce the ‘chance’ of blunders? If so, talking to the authors may have been a gross blunder.

All this is speculation. But previous failings, it seems to me, have often come about when different areas seek to respond positively to well-intention initiatives or insights, but there – at leat with hindsight – too little co-ordination between them. How could we facilitate appropriate foresight on this issue?

My own long-standing view is that where there are challenging issues, different teams with different perspewtives are going to take time to come to a mutual understanding that is good enough to even begin to comprehend the particular issues, not just those of ‘implementation’. One can’t turn on a sixpence and ‘reform’. One needs a longer bedding-in, based on a sound foundation. But what foundation? How can we tell, with foresight, what will be good enough unless we are clear abouit what will be built on it?

It seems to me that the foundation needs to come before the policy, and that one needs to be clear about the range of possible policies it is fit to support. But how to tell? Lacking any guidance, it seems to me inevitable that policymakers will sometimes go to far. I also incline to the view that many, perhaps most, of our most pressing chronic issues are simply beyond our current foundations, which is why they are chronic.

So, a worthwhile and stimulating book.

Dave Marsay


Having read this book, I wonder if the mangers of the implementation


More … TBC

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