Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong – and what we can do about it

Conundrum by Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope - book coverWritten by a Conservative MP and a Daily Telegraph political journalist, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong – and what we can do about it is – as the last part of the title suggests – rather more friendly to public services than you might expect from that author combination. It is a book about how to make public services better, not about how to replace public services with private provision – and private providers to the public sector often get short shrift for dismal performance. No reader of the book will be left thinking that private companies offer some magic solution when the public sector hits trouble.

The book starts with 12 factual chapters, each detailing a particular public service failure horror. The quality of these chapters is a little disappointing, as they are little more than a neatly done collection of press stories and Parliamentary committee enquiries edited together. They are decent, but don’t reveal anything new about any of the 12 failures. They do not offer much in the way of consistent analysis across the set either. It’s a well done cuttings collection rather than a piece of new research (perhaps understandably given how busy the two authors are).

That leaves the final few chapters, which try to draw out the lessons, including (inevitably and rightly) one specifically on IT failures. After the chapter on IT professionals, there are also ones that question why politicians and why civil servants so often get it wrong. These are rather kind to their subjects, making the point that civil servants, for example, are recruited from some of the very brightest and best people in the country. So simply dismissing their errors as the blunders of stupid people rather misses the point. Why is it that people who are so smart make so many mistakes? It’s a much harder question to answer than simply glibly assuming that they’re far more stupid than you are.

The book makes some good points about how neither politics nor the civil service’s personnel processes favour expertise at running things. Democratic politics favours those who can win elections, a reasonable flaw considering the alternatives. The civil service’s failures are less forgivable, prioritising as they do the ability to advise on policy rather than the ability either to run things or to advise on running things.

As Mike Bracken, head of the remarkably successful Government Digital Service, puts it, “Delivery is too often the poor relation to policy”.

In the end, though, the book is rather muted in its would-be solutions. Perhaps the long experience of both authors in covering public service failures has made them very wary about thinking there are easy solutions.

However they do finish on a good point that recent advances in understanding why people behave the way they do are starting to influence economics and other fields. There is still much scope for them to shed more light on management and the questions of how to nudge people into being good rather than bad managers of projects, be they private or public sector.

That is a challenge where the culture within organisations is crucial. For, in the words of the NHS IT programme’s Aidan Halligan, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. That is, no matter how good your intentions, your strategy and your plans, without the right culture in the organisation it will all go wrong.

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Buy Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong – and what we can do about it by Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope here.

Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

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