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Our government must learn to fail Big egos are getting in the way of effective experiments in policymaking

Boris Johnson with cabinet on February 14, 2020. Credit: Matt Dunham/Getty

Boris Johnson with cabinet on February 14, 2020. Credit: Matt Dunham/Getty


April 28, 2020   8 mins

I hate to say it, but the Government has probably got its pandemic policy wrong. Badly wrong.

The assumptions behind the epidemiology. The timing of the lockdown. Test and trace. The question of masks. The medical preparations. The economic rescue plan. You name it, the policy is probably way off.

But in what direction, I couldn’t tell you. Nor can anyone else — yet. It’s called the novel coronavirus for a reason. We’ve never faced a disease quite like it before. We’ve never shut down the economy before. This is uncharted territory and every government in the world is blundering about trying to find a way through.

So how much blame does our government deserve for the mistakes that it has made, is making and will make?

I hope that one day we’ll have the luxury of looking back on all of this as a historical event, not an evolving crisis. We’ll then have the time and space for royal commissions, public inquiries and all the rest of it. No doubt the 20:20 hindsight brigade will be out in force. So will the vulture press, picking over the bones — and looking for fresh meat too. Heads will be called for and, I fear, sacrifices offered up. My hope, however, is that we’ll be less interested in the what, when and who of the mistakes, and more interested in the why.

Where the explanation is one of incomplete information and limited options we need to be forgiving — always asking ourselves if we would have done any better in the same circumstances. I also suspect that the worst errors are rooted in a culture of government for which there can be no scapegoats because it’s goats all the way down.

These are the errors that come not from too little information, but from too few sources of advice, not enough experimentation, insufficient verification, and an unwillingness to admit to mistakes or to change course. In his interview with UnHerd, the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said that “there’s a tendency to become wedded to a position you’ve taken and find it difficult to revise views in terms of new evidence coming forward”.

This applies as much to politics as it does to science. And perhaps especially to political decisions made on the basis of scientific advice (given the gravity of what’s being decided).

With great power comes great responsibility — and I’ve no doubt that our leaders do feel responsible. You can see the weight of it etched on their faces. But it is not the only thing they need to feel. Power must also be tempered by humility. And that’s what I sense is missing here — if not from the soul of each and every minister, then from the culture of government (and politics and journalism) in which they operate.

True humility is not cowering passivity, but a recognition of the radical uncertainties that we have to live with. It is only once we’ve understood that reality that we begin to act appropriately — by accepting that most of what we do will be wrong to some extent, and therefore actively seeking out evidence of that wrongness. It’s only on such a basis that we can put a stop to what doesn’t work and learn from what does (no matter whose idea it was in the first place). Above all, we must keep our options open. The worst thing we can do, especially when faced with huge but unknowable risks, is to make one big bet on being right.

And yet that’s exactly what our system of government encourages our politicians to do.

*

Systems, of course, can be reformed — but there’s one thing that never changes and that’s the corrupting effect of power itself.

In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, George Orwell showed us what power at its most corrupt looks like. These are the chilling words of O’Brien, the secret policeman who breaks poor Winston Smith:

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

The context of the novel is the totalitarian state of Oceania. Our own situation, despite the lockdown, is a far cry from that grim parallel universe. Power, as exercised in a democracy, is thankfully not absolute — and thus neither is the corruption that follows in its wake.

Indeed, power is often illusory — our leaders are more Wizard of Oz than Big Brother. Nevertheless, the Orwellian idea of power for its own sake is still relevant to the smoke and mirrors of post-modern politics.

Let’s imagine O’Brien not as a member of the thought police, but as a comms consultant in our world. This is how he might describe our system of government:

“One doesn’t use whatever power one has to do something; one does something to show that one has power.”

What that something is — be it an ‘eye-catching initiative’, a full-blown government strategy or even something genuinely important like a single currency or a foreign war — doesn’t really matter. What counts is not so much the destination as that the wheels have been set in motion: the civil servants have something to implement; the press officers have something to press release; the journalists have something to report; the parliamentarians something to debate. Everyone, if not happy, is at least occupied — and none more so that the minister, standing over the machinery of government, lever proudly in hand.

Policy-makers do love their ‘levers’. And politicians love to pull them. In fact, they’re always on the pull — looking for some simple way to make something happen and therefore look like they’re in control.

In the UK, no department is keener on its levers than the Treasury. And no wonder — in no part of government is there a more reliably mechanistic correspondence between a ministerial decision and some meaningful result. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer raises or lowers this or that tax, then up or down it goes. If he decides to borrow more money, it gets borrowed. If he wants to cut expenditure, it gets cut.

But much, if not most, of what government does or tries to do is not like that. There’s no direct relationship between a decision made in Whitehall and an outcome in the real world. An education minister may try to boost literacy, a Home Office minister try to crack down on knife crime; but though money might be allocated to the chosen objective and new powers legislated for, there’s no guarantee that an actual difference will be made. The government machinery doesn’t always connect with the facts on the ground. Indeed, forget the real world: bureaucratic inertia can disconnect the machine itself from its levers — leaving ministers pulling away to no effect.

In recent decades, governments have become obsessed with ‘delivery’ — with making sure that the machine does respond. As part of this we’ve seen the Treasury taking an increasingly assertive role in the work of the spending departments — as if the lever-pulling magic of fiscal and monetary policy can somehow rub off on those parts of government whose writ runs beyond spreadsheets. Under Boris Johnson, we’ve seen the Downing Street operation take effective control of the Treasury — as if to ensure that control over the state is ultimately exerted from Number 10 not Number 11.

*

The great problem with this focus on levers and delivery is that it shrinks perspectives to internal workings of the machine — instead of looking at it from the outside and asking questions about the system as a whole.

Obviously, there’s the question of centralisation versus localisation. If you want to make changes across the country, can you really do it via a machine that is remotely controlled from Whitehall? But there’s an even more important question than that. And what it asks is not ‘where?’ but ‘how?’. Fundamentally, the machinery of government can be configured to operate in one of two basic ways: the first is to implement what works (as reckoned by those in charge); the second is to find out what doesn’t work. Decision versus discovery.

There’s no doubt which approach our political culture prefers. As Nigel Lawson once put it, “to govern is to decide”. But on what basis should one decide? Historical precedent? Political expediency? Ideological prejudice?

How about experimentation instead? Why not redesign the machinery of government to systematically test many solutions to a problem, as opposed to the current configuration, which is about imposing just one. It is surely easier to see what doesn’t work in practice, than to guess what does in theory — and thus, by a process of elimination, get closer to the answer.

Why isn’t government massively more experimental? Is it a question of expense — a lack of time or the money? No — because as long as we fail fast and fail small (through lots of local experiments), we can minimise the downside (and subsequently maximise the upside by making the most of what was found to work). Rather, the real reason why we stick to the one-shot, top-down style of policymaking is a political culture in which you can’t be the ‘big man’ unless you take big decisions.

And thus the machinery of government is engineered around the amplification of ego. Each part of the mechanism is valued and incentivised according to how well it serves this ultimate purpose. The flow of information back up the chain of command, which should be about revealing reality, instead responds to what the top of the chain wants to hear: confirmation that the right lever was pulled in the first place.

*

A prime example of this institutionalised confirmation bias was the original Troubled Families programme. This was launched by David Cameron in the wake of the riots of August 2011. At the time, there was enormous pressure on the Government to ‘do something’ — and the programme was the main response. Its purpose was to reduce truancy, anti-social behaviour, worklessness and other social problems thought to be concentrated among a targeted group of 120,000 households. It was rolled-out across the country, with hundreds of millions of pounds of funding.

By 2015, the Programme was reporting a remarkable level of success — with 98.9% of the troubled families supposedly having had their lives “turned around”. But, then, in 2016, an independent evaluation by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research surfaced, which was “unable to find consistent evidence that the programme had any significant or systematic impact.”

Payment by results was meant to provide the right incentives for providers (in this case, local government). But thanks to vague criteria, success could be declared (and payment collected) in most circumstances. In its very design, the programme was self-confirming.

It was also a huge wasted opportunity. Local delivery could have facilitated local experimentation with a variety of different approaches, involving a variety of different public, private and voluntary sector providers. But that would have made the Government — the Prime Minister in particular — look less decisive. The results would have been mixed, with some experiments failing completely. No doubt, the media would have portrayed each negative or mediocre result as a fiasco or even a scandal rather than as knowledge gained. As for any successes, those would have been seized upon as evidence of a postcode lottery — patchy provision privileging some communities over others.

Politically, it’s less risky for government to roll out one big approach across the nation, especially if its eventual failure doesn’t become apparent until long after the media has lost interest. Indeed nothing could be more risky than the fail fast approach of effective policy experimentation, because that generates news while the media is still paying attention.

Housing is another example of a policy area where localisation could allow a wide range of different approaches — and where outcomes are readily measured and compared (houses are big and thus easily counted). But, astonishingly, this most place-based of political issues is still driven by demonstrably useless central government policies like the wretched Help to Buy scheme. Imagine if those resources had been made available to local authorities, housing associations and other potential innovators with a brief to try out literally groundbreaking ideas.

In some areas of policy we do see government taking forward a number of different approaches to a particular challenge. For instance, with energy policy, government has thrown its weight behind the development and deployment of a broad spectrum of power generating technologies. That’s good, but what’s less good is that policy doesn’t proceed to the next stage, which would be a robust evaluation of the different options, so that we can weed out the ones that don’t perform as well as the others. Instead, we see government stubbornly persist with projects like new nuclear power stations, despite the eye-watering costs and the availability of cheaper alternatives.

Because pulling the plug on a project looks like failure — and therefore an admission of weakness — expensive mistakes have a tendency to get more expensive and thus even harder to admit to. This is why evidence of failure is less likely to be sought out and may even be suppressed. At the very least, we can expect the chain of command — configured as it to the delivery of the big man’s big decisions, not to ask awkward questions.

*

How much this all applies to the Government’s handling of the corona-crisis remains to be seen.

When we eventually look back on the decisions that have been made, the most important question we can ask is not whether they turned out to be right or wrong — but whether, in Professor Ferguson’s words, the decision-makers “revised their views in terms of new evidence coming forward”.

It’s on this basis that our leaders and their advisors should be judged. Of course, so far, it is too early to tell. But if the verdict of history is a good one, it will be despite, not because of, our culture of government.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

The solution to this is to do all these little experiments after the media has lost interest.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
3 years ago

Depressingly true. Both government and the media are at fault. The media because of the Gotcha and blame game culture. Government because it lacks the humility to admit central government doesn’t have all the answers, act as much as a facilitator of experimentation as the doer, and have the guts to take the media on.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago

The NHS is serviced by 27 different QUANGO’s, overseen by the Department if Health…below are the ones I could find, not sure what the others are as I can’t find a complete listing.

So, is this really neccessary? Has this separation of health services reduced or enhanced the NHS?

My instinct says the complexity of the inter-relationships reduces the efficacy of the relationship benefits…

NICE
CQC
NDG
HSCIC (NHS Digital)
PHE
NHS England (Executive Non-Departmental Body)
IRP
NIB
NHS Business Services Authority
NHS Improvement Authority
NHS Litigation Authority
Doctors Review Body
Dentists Review Body
ARSAC
HFEA
HTA
NHS Blood & Transplant

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Excellent work, and hence the source of the neurosis that the sainted NHS might fail.
Oh for the days of Sir Lancelot Spratt and the wonderful Hatty Jaques!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Tomorrow the 6th May one the largest Quangos, The Welsh Assembly is upgrading itself to the Welsh Parliament.
No doubt this revolting, self congratulatory, yet totally meaninglessness act will have to be paid for by the now massively overburdened taxpayer!
Post Chinese Death Flu we should rid ourselves of these political parasites. We can no longer afford such nonsense.

sipu261988
sipu261988
3 years ago

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes, it’s been obvious for many years that we need more small scale and widely varying experiments, not top down solutions that simply throw money at a given issue and invariably make it worse. But of course this would require politicians as well as large govt departments to give up some of their power, which is unlikely to happen. It would also require imagination and initiative on the part of the public sectors, which is equally unlikely to happen. And, as the writer points out it would require the media to behave with intelligence and integrity, which is also unlikely to happen. So, nothing will change,

Nick Whitehouse
NW
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

Wishful thinking I’m afraid.
The media are already complaining about “U Turns” with the current crisis. No allowance for the fact that this a new virus and as it is better understood the approach should change.
Also, as you wrote the complaints of postcode lottery, would escalate if you allowed too much localism – even though I agree with your ideas – but how would the relevant Minster survive?

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago

I think it is because of a tendency to idealise power and what it can achieve. This, not only in leaders, but in followers too. Perhaps it’s a defence to combat our inherent fear of freedom -the which brings greater awareness of complex relationships and responsibilities, our limitations and our greater dependence on others. I think the fantasy of omnipotence in leaders -that they must be able to do all of the things we demand of them – is a way of escaping our own lacks. We project our frustrations into a ruling class and then don’t have to own them for ourselves. There are some leaders who are only too happy to run with this projection -likely quite a narcissistic drive to have their own sense of omnipotence (usually a defence against their personal fear of impotence) reflected in the populus. I’m not saying this of all leaders and I think some narcissism is healthy and desirable.

I like the idea of these ‘little experiments’ but I feel they need to start off as even smaller , spontaneous and autonomous experiments, within the individual first, then in your own back yard, then with neighbours, then on the street on which you live and so on -see how far it takes you -and how often you have to stop because you get caught out by your own omnipotence! Good leadership is undoubtedly very complicated.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘We project our frustrations into a ruling class and then don’t have to own them for ourselves’

Well this ‘ruling class’ takes away at least half our income, one way or another, while rewarding itself extremely well. As such, it is not unreasonable to assume that they and their millions of staff might discharge their responsibilities competently and with a degree of integrity.

I don’t see why we should have to ‘own’ their mistakes when it is we who are paying for their grotesque and eternal incompetence.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I take your point, certainly the frustration behind it, which I share, but I think this is also somewhat in the nature of the projection. Perhaps it is a question of what is ‘normal’ incompetence -acceptable in the face of extraordinary complexity -i.e running a country is massively complex -and then innappropriate, or as I think you suggest, corrupt incompetence. I certainly don’t think we are obligated to own the mistakes of the ruling classes but I would argue that the more we govern our own lives, the less sovereignty we cede to others to make poor decisions on our behalf. But yes, we have to stay engaged in a healthy debate with those we appoint to make decsions and hold them to account where necessary.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

‘We’ used to rule the greatest Empire the world had seen since Ancient Rome, with only a handful of the parasites now regarded as a absolutely essential for the modern state. More are deployed in say Wandsworth, than were required to guide India.
If you seek a benchmark for sheer incompetence, look at how this country has been run since 1945.
On the other hand marvel at how the Empire was administered between say 1764 and 1914. Besides the minor altercation with our American Colonies, it was gravure performance of pragmatism tinged with humanity, and brought immeasurable benefits to nearly all.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

There was an experiment in reducing certain government powers a few years ago. It was called Devolution.
It was an unmitigated disaster, the full cost of which we have yet to pay.
Let us hope Boris Johnson KS, PM, carefully considers this before taking any precipitous action.
If he wishes to control the Media, he should look to the example of his predecessor, the scoundrel, David Lloyd George, who almost as an act of redemption, did finally chastise the Press in no uncertain terms.

Steve Burston
Steve Burston
3 years ago

Excellent article. This is a sad reflection of both government, opposition politicians and the media today. A government admitting that, no matter how well-intentioned their actions, they made a mistake, would be crucified by both the opposition and media. Likewise the same is true for an opposition politician admitting mistakes. Politics is now all about the soundbite, the punchline, the “gotcha” moment and the knock-out blow. On YouTube you can find a 1970 election debate between Roy Jenkins and Enoch Powell about the economy. They argue their respective cases in a respectful manner, with plenty of reference to the facts, that enables the audience to make an informed decision. In football parlance, they were playing the ball and not the man. I don’t see politics ever returning to this kind of discourse, especially since it doesn’t make for a high impact 3 minute news item in today’s 24 hour news cycle. More’s the pity. At least UnHerd is a step in the right direction and is to be congratulated.

Paddy Kay
Paddy Kay
3 years ago

So important to be allowed to fail, we can learn much more from the occasional failure than success. Localisation and devolution of budgets/responsibilities enables the “ready, fire, aim” approach which we will need if we are to become more nimble as we leave EU. Unfortunately our toxic media and adversarial politics makes this sort of approach very difficult. Not sure how we change this. Maybe the pandemic experience can be a catalyst?

Mark Cole
Mark Cole
3 years ago

Interesting article. There are a lot of hard working heroes out there and there seems to have been some good examples of cross party collaboration in this crisis. I wonder if the weaknesses in our system lies in the MO or leadership cultures within the public sector, civil service, NHS/PHE administration? Contrast the speed with which the armed services and others built the excellent nightingales with perhaps poor or at least slow and efficient decision making on PPE, Testing & App development. In a crisis good leadership is often reflected in effective decision making based on experience, education, common sense and balance judgement – it is not led by “adhere to strict guidelines” or wait until we’re told to approaches. On the other hand clear responsibility and accountability are perhaps so not easily attritibale as they are in industry and military structures.

Very large corporates are also vulnerable to the failings of this type of institutional decision making, certainly more so than smaller and more nimble ones. There has been much work done on culture and leadership since the 2008 financial crisis, perhaps the public sector needs this crisis to learn some lessons from industry and the military?

Michael Whittock
MW
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

You say our political culture is one ” in which you can’t be the ‘big man’ unless you make big decisions ” and that the “machinery of government is engineered around the amplification of the ego”.
I think we should pay attention to the psychological make-up of our leaders because that will indeed affect their decisions. Were we slow in our response to Covid, in great measure, because of the optimistic, carefree attitude of the Prime Minister who didn’t seem to grasp the urgency of the threat? Could we compare that with the dour, careful, suspicious Gordon Brown who from that standpoint may have acted earlier?