Why is Britain badly governed? Policy blunders 1980-2010

Why do British governments make so many costly mistakes? Why do some policies fail spectacularly? Ivor Crewe examines a series of major UK government blunders, and asks what can be done to improve the quality and effectiveness of our public policy.

The British public hold its governments and politicians in poor regard. Turnout in elections, membership of political parties and the readership and audience for the political news are all at historic lows. Surveys place MPs alongside estate agents and tabloid journalists as the least trusted occupations. People increasingly think of government and the political process as part of the problem, not the solution.

Some of the present-day causes for this dissatisfaction are fairly obvious. The global financial crisis that began in 2008 has made almost all the elected governments that it caught unawares very unpopular. In the UK the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 left a deep scar. And there are deeper, longer-term factors, in particular the decline of the power of the sovereign nation state in an era of globalisation. The international bond and currency markets overwhelm the national state. Critical problems cross national boundaries and require international solutions: crime, terror, environmental degradation, migration. Governing well is always difficult, far more so than commentators and citizens imagine. But in the current climate it is even more difficult.

In Britain, politicians and senior officials are also disparaged for the simple reason that our governments get things wrong, sometimes very badly wrong. They blunder, probably increasingly, probably on a greater scale than at least some comparable countries, and certainly unnecessarily and too often. Anthony King and I have completed a study of major government blunders committed by the UK government between 1980 and 2010 to see if there is a pattern that explains these missteps.

What is a blunder?

  • By a blunder we mean a case of a government initiative to achieve one or more stated objectives which:
  • Not only fails totally to achieve those objectives, but in addition:
  • Wastes very large amounts of public money;
  • and/or causes widespread human distress;
  • and was eventually abandoned or reversed;
  • and was foreseeable.

Blunders are only one form of government failure or policy error. They need to be distinguished from policy disappointments. A great deal of government action produces outcomes that are smaller, slower, weaker, costlier and less clear cut than envisaged. Much of New Labour’s attempts to reduce social exclusion, improve public services and raise educational and health standards fall into this category – but they did not achieve the opposite of what was intended, waste colossal amounts of money or result in collateral damage. They were disappointments, possibly not worth undertaking in the first place, but not blunders.

Blunders also need to be distinguished from wrong judgement calls. The real world of government is often intractable and ultimately unpredictable. People in government, as in all walks of life, know only what they know and can find out, and in conditions of extreme uncertainty and limited evidence, they decide what, on balance, it makes sense for them to do. They will sometimes be right, sometimes wrong, but the fact that they turn out to have made a mistake does not mean that they were careless or stupid. The Treasury’s sale of half the UK gold reserves from 1999-2002 at the bottom of the market and the Labour Government’s handling of foot and mouth disease in 2001 are cases in point. All blunders are mistakes; not all mistakes are blunders.

Blunders are sins of commission and need to be distinguished from sins of omission. UK governments have flunked from tackling, in good order and in good time, critical structural challenges to the future of the country. One thinks, for example, of the failure of successive administrations to establish a system of social care for an aging population; to devise a national strategy for sustainable energy and for food sufficiency; and to decide on the location for, let alone provide, increased airport capacity in London. These failures have massive public consequences, but our focus is on specific, identifiable instances of deliberate policy decisions that have gone spectacularly wrong. Perhaps sins of omission should be called ‘meta-blunders’.

We studied 12 blunders taken from a much longer list compiled from the suggestions of a large number of former ministers, senior officials and political commentators. What these blunders all share in common is that the Government failed in its objectives, spent and wasted large amounts of public money and/or wrecked the everyday lives of ordinary people. Not all the blunders were widely foreseen, but they were all foreseeable, if politicians and officials had had the capacity and willingness to do so.

Why do blunders happen?

To understand why blunders happen it is helpful to distinguish between structural and behavioural causes. Structural causes are rooted in poorly designed policy-making and delivery structures that are liable to produce or allow mistakes, irrespective of the quality and behaviour of the politicians and officials involved. The remedy lies in the reform of the UK’s policy-making system.

Behavioural causes lie in the inadequate skills or delinquent behaviour of ministers and officials operating in a sound policy-making system. The remedies include better training, more appropriate experience, increased self- and group- awareness and more compelling incentives and sanctions for performance.

Structural causes:

(1) the deficit of deliberation

The British political system is often admired for its decisiveness. If a government wants to act, it does so, unconstrained by ‘veto-players’ – institutions with the power to block any initiative that they find objectionable. The British system is efficient at converting a minister’s wishes into a legislative bill (even if hastily drawn up and badly drafted). The whips will drive it through the Commons and the parliamentary committees. Number 10 and the Treasury will lean on ministers. Ministers will instruct civil servants to deliver. Whitehall will issue guidelines to town halls or NHS trusts or whoever is responsible for applying the policy locally.

The trouble with a system designed to take such unconstrained decisions is that it is as efficient at facilitating bad decisions as good ones. All the governments that committed the blunders we investigated were strong and decisive, but their very strength and decisiveness made possible – indeed positively encouraged – their blundering.

The British system is designed for decisiveness rather than deliberation. A decision arrived at by deliberation is based on the careful and dispassionate weighing of the pros and cons of alternative options after receiving the advice of a range of experts and interests, including those known to be sceptical about the proposed policy. Such decisions inevitably take time and cannot be rushed.

The common feature of the dozen case studies of blunders is that the Government did not engage in serious deliberation. Almost all of the blunders were gestated largely in-house, within the executive branch. The Government did not deliberate with the people most directly affected, with those whose job it is to apply a policy, with independent experts, and with those who were opposed, before arriving at a decision.

In the case of the poll tax, a small group of exceptionally bright officials and junior ministers were tasked to propose an alternative to the rates. It was a complex, major project. They were closeted together, working long hours. They talked incessantly to each other, but deliberately excluded local government treasurers, the real experts on local tax collection. Nor did they investigate the probable reaction of local tax payers because they assumed they knew it already.

When it came to the Child Support Act, the government ignored doubts expressed by the child poverty lobby and failed to consult officials who had direct experience of collecting payments and information from the poor – the managers and staff of social security offices. In the case of Metronet, the Treasury, led by Gordon Brown, ignored the expertise of Transport for London who managed the London Underground. Nothing in the British system – or indeed in the British political culture – required the Government to reach out beyond its own confines.

The institutional locus of national deliberation should, of course, be Parliament, one of whose roles is to scrutinise the details of legislation. Parliament turned out to be an irrelevant spectator in the policy blunders we examined, even though most involved new primary legislation. On all essential points the members of the governing party in the Commons did little more than support their ministers’ legislative proposals. In neither House were there pre-legislative hearings; the public bill committees, where legislation is meant to be examined clause by clause, are systematically whipped, and the select committees, including the Public Accounts Committee, look at policy after the event, not before.

The bills in most cases were rushed through, with little time afforded either for substantive debate or for detailed scrutiny of individual clauses. The few voices raised in opposition were largely ignored. Indeed, a notable feature of the whole list of blunders was the inevitability with which the opposition parties would object to the policies on grounds of principle, but the rarity with which they argued that they would fail in their objectives (the single exception being the mis-selling of pensions). The official opposition parties played no effective part in any of the proceedings.

Structural causes:

(2) the deficit of accountability

Why do so many ministers fail to appreciate the benefits of careful deliberation? After all, they are formally accountable to Parliament for the performance of their department and run the risk of media exposure when things go badly wrong. In reality, however, they are not held responsible for the outcomes of their policy initiatives. Only one of the 80 ministers and senior officials most closely associated with the 12 policy blunders (excluding the chief executives of the delivery agencies) resigned or suffered demotion or sanctions. The exception was the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was ousted by her cabinet from Number 10 as a result of the unpopularity of the poll tax.

In the British system blunderers go unpunished. Indeed, achievers often go unnoticed and unrewarded. The main reason is that ministers and senior officials typically stay in post for a couple of years. By the time a blunder becomes apparent, they have moved on or out. They do not even appear before the Public Accounts Committee or the relevant select committee. It is left to their hapless successors to do the explaining and apologising.

A system without veto players, but frequent ministerial re-shuffles, incentivises hurried short-term policy-making and increases the risk of blunders. New ministers usually lack expertise or prior engagement with the department’s policy area. They are aware that they probably have only a year or two to make their mark with the media, the prime minister or their party. They realise that a new policy backed by Number 10 and the Treasury will reach the statute book without any significant hurdles, and that by the time the consequences of their policy initiatives become apparent, they will no longer be blamed for a blunder or credited with a triumph. Ministers are therefore attracted to short-term results and to designing and pushing through policy initiatives as fast as they can. They demand that their officials come to them with solutions not problems. There is little incentive to get weighed down by time-consuming deliberation or to become involved in the messy and frustrating details of implementation.

Behavioural causes:

(a) ministerial hyper-activism

These structural features of the policy-making system have also created a culture of ‘ministerial hyper-activism’. In public life, ambition and drive are important ingredients for success, but absence of individual accountability and of countervailing checks and balances generates misplaced confidence that easily leads to blunders. In the case of almost every blunder the ministers responsible were confident that the policy could be made to work if only the officials got on with the job of delivering it. They believed that all problems, however complex, had a solution and that it was the responsibility of government to find and implement it. They assumed that officials who pointed out snags were being obstructive and should be replaced, and that professionals who were sceptical were self-interested and should be ignored. Benign neglect – the option of doing nothing – is alien to the modern culture of Whitehall.

Behavioural causes:

(b) cultural disconnect

Governments blunder because they frequently suffer from ‘cultural disconnect’. They devise policies in the belief that those affected by those policies will respond in a particular way, only to be surprised to discover that they respond very differently or not at all. They project onto others their own mind sets, values, habits and assumptions, which tend to be markedly unrepresentative of the people most affected by a policy. The devisers of the poll tax took it for granted that everybody complied with the law, even laws they hated, because they did, and so failed to anticipate that large numbers of former non-rate payers would refuse to pay. The creators of the Child Support Agency were unaware of two important aspects of life among the relatively poor, that overwhelmed the IT systems and led to administrative chaos: that the income of those in casual and intermittent employment fluctuated from week to week, and that some women had multiple children by different fathers, and some men fathered multiple children with different women.

Behavioural causes:

 (c) operational disconnect

The second behavioural failing is ‘operational disconnect’. Time and again those who designed a policy failed to involve those who, further down the line, would find themselves having to implement whatever the new policy turned out to be. The rapid rotation of ministers and officials exacerbated the problem. The policy-makers operated in an implementation vacuum. They did not regard issues of implementation as their problem, because they did not imagine it could ever threaten the policy’s viability. The Whitehall poll tax group did not involve local government finance officers, who were the experts on local tax collection. Senior departmental officials did not consult front-line staff in local tax offices about the administration of tax credits or in welfare benefit offices about the new arrangements for child maintenance payments.

Why was it not self-evident to ministers that a policy design is only as good as its practical application? One answer is that most ministers have little or no experience of running a large organisation, delivering services and satisfying clients or customers, in other words, managing and delivering change. They are, increasingly, professional politicians who have spent their entire career, or almost all of it, in politics itself, as student politicians, political researchers, speech writers and young MPs. Until they assumed office, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, George Osborne, Michael Gove and William Hague – to name just some – had spent almost their entire adult lives in politics but had not run anything. Perhaps it is not surprising that ministers miscalculate the impact of policies and take little interest in their practical implementation, as distinct from the principles of their design.

Reducing blunders

What changes might make the UK government less blunder-prone? Institutional reforms should be designed to inject a larger measure of formal policy deliberation outside the executive, including pre-legislative scrutiny in Parliament and formal public consultation of organised interests and expert individuals. Higher priority should be given to improving two-way collaboration between policy designers and policy implementers. The rotation of civil servants and officials should be significantly reduced and their public accountability increased. Behavioural change is more difficult to engineer, although there is scope for the recruitment, training and promotion of officials with skills in risk assessment, project management and policy evaluation. In addition, the gene pool of ministers should be widened: the UK is one of the very few democracies in which ministers must be recruited from the ranks of parliamentarians (largely MPs) and members of parliament are effectively recruited by local constituency parties for whom competence in governing is a minor consideration.

In recent years the leaders of the three main parties have pledged to enhance the quality of our democracy with proposals to reform the working of parliament (Gordon Brown), to change the electoral system and directly elect the House of Lords (Nick Clegg) and to shift the balance of power from central government to local institutions (David Cameron). Most of these ideas have come to nothing, with the exception of directly elected police commissioners. But the popular legitimacy of our democratic institutions owes more to the standard of government affecting everyday lives, than the quality of governance owes to democratic design. Blundering governments are not governments that command respect. Perhaps the principal cause of our discontents is poor governance rather than democratic deficit – and is what needs to be addressed.


Sir Ivor Crewe is the Master of University College, Oxford, and author (with Anthony King) of The Blunders of Our Governments (Oneworld, 2013).