In ancient Greece when a new bridge was opened the bridge designer had to stand underneath it for the duration of the opening ceremony. Anthony King & Ivor Crewe, in their book The Blunders of our Governments, show us that the Ancient Greeks had more advanced decision making, and accountability, processes than we have today.
This book is fascinating for all politics & government geeks (like me), but it’s also enlightening for anyone involved in the decision making processes of organisations large and small. The book should definitely be required reading for anyone in a “Leadership” / “Management” role in education, healthcare, town planning, the media etc.
Recent years have seen substantial growth in the industry often called “managerial science”, this very term seems to cast a grey torpid shadow over the colourful vibrancy which we should all seek in our lives. King & Crewe’s book puts much of the colour back into the arid landscape of managerialism.
King & Crewe show that blunders are a built in product of the British political system, and the UK Parliament in particular. Here they demonstrate that policy blunders are not mainly the fault of political ideology, nor personal competence, but an inevitable product of an adversarial system within a 24hr news cycle.
In the first part of the book they examine some of the key political blunders of the past 30 years, this would make hilarious reading were it a script for “Yes Minister”, however it’s rather sobering given its reality. The classic cases that one would expect are present : The Poll Tax, The Child Support Agency etc. However, some fairly unknown grave mistakes are also there, has anyone in London heard of Metronet? If not, then after reading this book you’ll understand why Tube fares are so incredibly expensive.
On the process of decision making itself, I was fascinated to read that Herodotus reported in 45BC that the ancient Persians consider every decision twice: once when sober, and once when drunk ! In the second part of the book King and Crewe look at the reasons for government failure. There is much classic social and organisational Psychology here (such as Group Think and Cultural Disconnect). There are many golden nuggets in this section of the book, for example – when the aristocratic Secretary of State for The Environment, Nicholas Ridley, was asked how an old couple on a limited fixed pension were to pay the Poll Tax he replied “maybe they could sell a painting”.
I also loved the discussion on the dangers of Powerpoint, including the quote “Powerpoint is a potentially dangerous instrument of persuasion”.
I particularly enjoyed the section discussing the problems of “The Delivery Culture”. The Delivery Culture had quite the opposite effect of that intended. The Delivery Culture speeds up the process of decision making, which in turn weakens the decisions made, which ultimately hinders delivery, and in some cases prevents any delivery. There are many Thatcher/Blair/Brown quotes heralding the delivery culture. I have also used this term many times in my career, after reading the book I hope never to use it again.
At the surface level the book is an enjoyable journey through some recent Govt bloopers. At the next level the book is a detailed analysis of the problems of decision making in complex organisations. At another level the book is a deliberation on the very function of government itself. It’s the most interesting, and thought provoking, government text that I’ve read in years !