Features: September 7th, 2007

Mistakes? Whose Mistakes?

By Will Werry

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

None of us can afford to congratulate ourselves as fulsomely as Prince Metternich, the long-serving foreign minister of the Austrian empire; he confided to his diary ‘twenty times a day I say to myself, my God, how right I am’. Certainly I can make no such claim myself; I see now that, like many auditors then, I spent the first15 years of a long audit career looking for things which had stopped happening more than 50 years previously. So, let’s be realistic about what sort of long-term performance can be expected, from real people.


Let’s start with the incessant fault-finding now so widely enjoyed. The blame culture is universally denounced, even by ministers, and rightly so. We have all known bosses whose chief and possibly only pleasure in life is to second-guess and ridicule the work of their staff. Nothing so quickly sabotages any organization. How disappointing, therefore, that successive ministers have broadcast so much blame in all directions. News cameramen now home in instantly on ministerial lips curling with contempt. The best value regime was an early bad omen, with its offensive new statutory duty to seek continuous improvement—offensive because everybody has been doing that for many millennia, otherwise we would all still be living in caves.

One man’s dustbin

Why is local government so easily parodied? Is it because so much what local authorities do is pretty humdrum stuff, like emptying dustbins? Any long-cherished memory of a thoughtless act by some individual dustman can readily be extrapolated from, when dining out on the deficiencies of local government. I have listened to the director of an influential national organization ridiculing local government on the strength of how a minor official dealt with his complaint about defects in his wheelie bin.

To provide a wider basis for a test, I suggest a comparison between sectors as to performance in fields which we all have plenty of data to work on. How does local government compare with other sectors in carrying out some of the simple tasks, like making itself accessible to the public?

My experience is that local authorities keep in touch with their public better than any other sector. The privatized utilities score lowest. Even telephoning them is hard work. Nearly all of them insulate themselves from the public with call centres, which serve to stop anybody discovering the name and number of the officer responsible for any particular activity.

Another simple test of any organization is how much they do to enable their various departments, divisions, branches and offices to share information about changes o address on the part of their respective publics. This was one of the first suggestions for a quick win for e-government. But so far as I know no organ of central government has ever even considered providing such a service. Most of the privatized utilities, banks and insurance companies are outstandingly bad at it, and require a separate message to each of their offices to register a change. What is worse, sending such a message is often harder than it sounds, because their correspondence commonly fails to provide the address or phone number of the office you need to put right

Why mention e-government?

But all this is small beer. I mention it only to encourage readers to make their own instant cross-checks.

Go to the other end of the scale and look at the rationale for e-government. This is a government project, founded on two propositions. The first is that local government needs to make more use of IT. Why bother to say such a thing? It must by now be pretty obvious that we will all be increasing our use of IT for the foreseeable future; and that the pace of its introduction is dictated by the judgment of purchasers as to when these inventions can safely be relied on for serious business.

The second proposition is that local government is too cautious about such judgments, and that the judgment of central government is better. It is hard to think of a flimsier argument. Leave aside the limited credibility of any advice from people who don’t have to pick up the pieces if it all goes wrong, when given to people who do. Just look at the long-term record. Joe Lyons & Co (the celebrated chain of corner-houses and tea rooms) was the first UK body to use computers for payroll, and the Consortium of South East London Boroughs was the first public sector body to follow. Since then most local government IT developments have proceeded on an incremental basis, which seems to have kept them out of the newspapers. Central government big bang IT development has meanwhile become a music hall joke.

Why the big bangs?

There have of course been innumerable enquiries into what went wrong, but failure usually gets blamed on facile piffle like failure to spell out objectives, or to have a single project director in overall charge. Objectives change during the course of even the most modest domestic projects, and I marvel at the self-delusion of anybody who expects to proceed on the assumption that they can prevent major changes in objectives and specifications in ambitious IT projects which are going to take five years. Directors in overall charge are more feasible but, to keep them in post for five years, they would probably have to be paid far more than anybody is willing to pay them.

The biggest central government IT projects are by definition of national and therefore of political importance. Inevitably, responsible ministers make political capital out of the expected results from these projects, and identify themselves with their success. I think a bit of serious analysis might show that the biggest mistakes are therefore top down, and stem from the excessive drive and commitment of ministers and to their reluctance to listen to their more knowledgeable but less forceful advisers .

The same analysis should extend to why few of the contracts in question failed to attract keen tenders. I suspect that there are two reasons for this. The first is the Herman Goering syndrome. When Germany’s biggest and best-equipped army (the Sixth Army) succeeded in capturing most of Stalingrad in 1942, it was unexpectedly surrounded by massive counter attacks by the Red Army. Hitler fervently wanted the Sixth Army to stay in place, and he asked Goering, who spoke for the Luftwaffe at Hitler’s staff conferences, if he could supply the besieged army by air. Of course Goering knew that this was utterly impossible, deep in the steppe during a Russian winter. But how could he possibly admit his impotence, in front of so many expectant colleagues and watchful rivals? So he said what Hitler wanted to hear; the Sixth Army and most the Luftwaffe’s cargo aircraft were wiped out, and the tide of the Second World War inexorably turned. So let’s not waste time wondering why somebody can always be found to come up with a heroic tender.

The second reason might prove to be that such a tender might not have to be all that heroic anyway. Firm price contracts are of course enforceable, but ‘enforceable’ means whatever the courts would find it reasonable to enforce. What sort of contractor with a big-bang IT contract would be unable to point in mid-contract to factors which nobody could possibly have foreseen? Inevitably, massive price increases have to be accepted.

So if people must talk about mistakes, let’s not talk as if there is any monopoly in them.

Will Werry is a member of the Commissioning Joint Committee, CIPFA, London.