April 28, 2020

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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By Mary Harrington

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