Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Are unintended consequences inevitable in government?


So I'm now well into writing the introduction and conclusion of my new monograph, Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progesss. The (fairly) interesting hypothesis this book will explore is this: that a social democratic age of reform, launched between 1944 and 1948, eventually collapsed under the weight of some of its own inner contradictions. Plenty of people have chronicled the rise of neo-liberalism under a new type of Conservative such as Margaret Thatcher (above). But few have written about this from a governance perspective, drawing in insights from managerial writing and from sociological theories of choice and unintended consequences.

There are plenty of those to pick from. Labour brought in a Land Commission in 1967, to nationalise building land rights and lower land prices: those costs soared. The same government created the Parliamentary Commissioner or Ombudsman, hoping to 'humanize' Whitehall and forge a new link between people and administration. The Ombudsman's caseload groaned for years with complaint and controversy that seemed to bring government further and further into disrepute. The Americans and the British spent years upholding the 'Bretton Woods' system, which pegged their currencies immovably against one another, and to gold. Those currencies weakened and weakened, until the fixed rate system had to be abandoned.

And so on. And on. Now I'm working on integrating all this into the theoretical literature mentioned above. I'm labouring a bit, but I'll get there.

The most important thing to say at this stage is that these paradoxes were and are certainly not limited to the age of Keynesian and social democratic reform. The 'New Public Management' of the 1980s, which hoped to transform governance in a neo-conservative direction, turns out to be just as riddled with these unintended consequences. The work of Christopher Hood at Oxford University is a good pointed to these processes. He has shown how attempts to construct 'neutral' arbiters, such as 'hived off' semi-autonomous Development Corporations, dragged those operations into controversy; how trying to count unmeasurable outputs made them seem fuzzier and fuzzier, rather than more precise; and how massive financial shocks and constraints entrenched so-called 'restrictive practices', rather than dislodging them, as the Thatcherites intended.

So now the question is: are we doomed to unintended consequences? It would seem like a counsel of despair, one familiar from some of the undertones in From Dreams to Disillusionment: Economic and Social Planning in 1960s Britain.

I'll find out and let you know.

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