Theatre in Wales

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Political Book of the Year Award-Winner

A Political Diary

Anthony King and Ivor Crewe- The Blunders of our Governments , Oneworld , November 29, 2013
A Political Diary by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe- The Blunders of our Governments The authors of “The Blunders of our Governments” are heavyweights. Sir Ivor Crewe is Master of University College, Oxford. Anthony King is Professor of British Government at Essex, a television regular at election time, his contributions supplying depth of knowledge and acuity of observation over spur-of-the-moment wishful thinking.

The media does politics but not government. The reason is simple. The Parliament Channel shows government as it is- gradual, methodical, prosaic, sweet-tempered on the whole, and unexciting for those not involved. But to watch the Select Committees at work- in late November hours of Uber UK’s top public affairs staffer, for instance, giving evidence to the digital economy committee- is always illuminating. But then, as the authors point out, the select committeees cannot look into policy formulation.

The authors also point out that government does many things right. The eight hundred billion pound plus goliath that is HM Government rarely tops the stinkers and the writedowns that the private sector has achieved. But the blunders are regular, going from the small to the titanic. The Dangerous Dogs Act is a classic of badly written rush-to-law legislation. The Housing Information Pack cost a lot of people hundreds of pounds and achieved the opposite of its intention.

The monster of the century has to be the NHS database, kicked off by the Premier's over-riding all government process with his “yeah, sounds good” from the sofa. The bill nudges close to £20bn- that is £20,000,000,000 in real digits. But the worst are those acts of unintended cruelty that government inflicts upon those whose lives are already hard-stressed. The Child Support Agency was riddled with error and of no benefit to the recipients as in most cases the Treasury took the money. Worst of all was the risk of violence faced by women from men if they supplied the information demanded of them.

King and Crewe run through the causes mercilessly. They admit an occasional dry humour when they liken the organisational structure behind the Millennium Dome to a QR Code. Otherwise, the outsourcers are up to their necks in the mire. The Individual Learning Accounts gifted £100m to fraudsters. As for the adored PFI- let the next generation pay- Joint Ventures are unstable and long-term contracts inflexible. The faith in the cybersphere is limitless and the seduction of IT gigantism irresistible. The errors and accidental cruelties have nothing to do with Party.

The two authors, political authorities of the first order, are not system theorists. A first principle of system design is that the inner complexity of a system must be of equivalence to the complexity of the external environment. An all-Internet, stripped-of-people HRMC without simplification of the variation-riddled tax code is another IT fantasy and another disaster-in-waiting. As ever it is the most vulnerable who may await the most cruel treatment.

This article first appeared in Wales Arts Review.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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