The Blame Game: Spin, Bureaucracy, and Self-Preservation in Government

February 10, 2011

The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government might turn out to be the most blamed political alliance in British electoral history. The Lib Dems will be blamed for years to come for betraying their campaign principles and dealing with the devil. The Tories will be blamed for exploiting the economic crisis in the pursuit of a callous Thatcherite agenda. Both are likely to end up blaming one another for policies that go badly wrong. Both seek to blame the previous Labour government for a legacy of economic disaster. And Labour, at least thus far, seems to have little to say in opposition except that the coalition is deeply blameworthy.

Blame and its avoidance pervade the rhetoric of post-meltdown politics, leaving the bemused electorate in the position of a school dinner lady trying to get to the bottom of a playground fight. Christopher Hood may well have written the first penetrating history of the current coalition government, even though it is understandably not mentioned in his book because it was not even a speck on the political radar when he was writing it.

Hood highlights three kinds of blame avoidance: presentational strategies, designed to diminish the public recognition of government mistakes; agency strategies, based on shifting responsibility for potentially unpopular policies to delegated others; and operational strategies, in which suboptimum policies with a below-average likelihood of causing embarrassment tend to be selected before optimal policies that just might go badly wrong.

He devotes interesting chapters to each of these strategies, followed by a more sophisticated analysis of how and why mixed blame-avoidance strategies might be most successful. Rather discouragingly for anyone hoping to use this book as a practical primer, Hood explains: "We do not have anything approaching a systematic test of the efficacy of blame avoidance strategies." For which read: This is how to avoid blame, but don't blame me if none of it works.

Looking at the coalition government, one can certainly observe Hood's presentational strategies at work. But most of these are little more than re-enactments of well-rehearsed New Labour routines - more The Thick of It, series 2, rather than a new concept in hoodwinking.

One can also detect a degree of economic risk management at play; for it must be clear to everyone involved in the coalition project that any wrong move could result in a further recession, suggesting that what was offered as medicine was in fact poison. While Treasury risk managers are undoubtedly hard at work, there seem to be a raft of institutional reforms (universities, the NHS, do-it-yourself schools and forensic services) that fell through the risk-checking filter.

It is Hood's second strategy that might most vividly come to define the coalition's approach to blame avoidance: attempts that "officeholders and organisations make to deflect or limit blame by creative allocation of formal responsibility, competency, or jurisdiction among different units and individuals". That's quite a mouthful; shall we call it the "Big Society" for short? This entails avoiding responsibility for tough decisions by leaving those affected to make them for themselves. It's devolved governance to some; it's buck-passing to others.

As Hood rightly notes, the appropriateness of particular strategies depends largely on complex cultural trends that are beyond the control of governments. One important trend that he might have addressed, but has not, is the character of the prevailing media. If the latter are mainly preoccupied with blame games, seeing their role as to discredit the motives and actions of policymakers, government is likely to be driven into a state of permanent hiding. The absence of a media balance between asking "why did this go wrong?" and "how can we make this work?" provides the most profound rationale for the tedious longevity of the blame game.

The Blame Game: Spin, Bureaucracy, and Self-Preservation in Government

By Christopher Hood. Princeton University Press. 242pp, £.95. ISBN 9780691129952. Published 26 January 2011

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