Massive data blunder puts many lives at risk

Whoops! The Covid app, Concorde, the Dome and the DeLorean car have all been dubbed failures

Is all government useless? The UK’s latest Covid fiasco unleashed harsh criticism of state inefficiency. But what if a bit of inefficiency is actually an essential part of healthy democracy?

The Conservative MP sat with his head in his hands. What on Earth was he to tell his constituents? The government’s highly vaunted track-and-trace system had shown yet another flaw, failing to register nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases. As a result, decisions on combating the disease had been made based on completely inaccurate premises – and thousands more people who might have the virus had not been contacted.

Officials attributed the failure to a computer glitch, but the British press was scathing. “The government,” wrote Eliot Wilson in the Daily Telegraph, “remains slow-witted and clay-footed in its reaction to the public health crisis and its tidal wave of economic and social effects”. The Daily Mail condemned it as “shambolic”.

To be fair to Boris Johnson, his is not the only government seen to be incompetent. There is no country in the world that does not have a history of extraordinary fiascos.

The recent explosion in Beirut is a prime example. Bureaucrats had been warned for years that there was a potentially lethal consignment of ammonium nitrate sitting in the city’s port but did nothing about it. In the aftermath, the entire government resigned.

Italian politicians have been repeatedly criticised for their failure to deal with the problems caused by earthquakes. Seven years after the one that devastated the town of L’Aquila in 2009, many families were still living in temporary accommodation.

Denmark’s introduction of a tax on food containing saturated fats was hailed as a brilliant idea for improving public health – but had to be abandoned after 15 months when it was discovered that people were simply crossing the border into Germany or Sweden to buy their food there.

Even Germany, widely regarded as the most efficient nation of all, has seen spectacular debacles. The opening of a new airport for Berlin, scheduled for 2012, had to be postponed when half a million faults were discovered. They have still not been sorted out.

In their book The Blunders of Our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe explore misconceived ventures from Concorde and the DeLorean “supercar” to the Millennium Dome and Britain’s Asset Recovery Agency. They conclude that there are a dozen basic reasons for official policies not working, ranging from “cultural disconnect” (such as a rich politician failing to understand how poor people suffer) to the fact that ministers are moved between jobs too frequently to master any of them.

Economists use the term “government failure” to describe situations where government intervention has made things worse. Those who dislike political interference believe that our lives would run more smoothly if we put our faith in market forces instead. Amazon, they say, is far more efficient than any ministry.

But critics of Amazon say that its famous efficiency is because it is not a democracy; it is a money-making machine. Governments are for everyone, with all the mess and muddle that implies. Markets are merely interested in supply and demand.

So, is all government condemned to being a bit useless?

State debate

Some say, yes. It makes everything too complicated because so many people are involved. It is also expensive, since all these people have to be paid. If the track and trace system were run by a private company whose profits depended on providing fast and reliable results, it would be far more efficient.

Others argue that efficiency is not everything. We also want our society to be fair, and to look after those who cannot look after themselves – people market forces would regard as a dead weight. Ministers sometimes make mistakes, but so do we all. It is easy to list things a government has done spectacularly badly; the things it does well are often not immediately quantifiable.

You Decide

  1. Should the head of a government or ministry always take responsibility for its failings, even the fault was somebody else’s?
  2. If you were creating a government from scratch, which 10 ministries would you establish as its core?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture of either Concorde, the DeLorean car or the Millennium Dome.
  2. Imagine that you have spent a week in close contact with one of the Covid-19 sufferers missed by the track and trace system. Write a letter of complaint to the government.

Some People Say...

“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), American politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that governments and individual politicians are slower to take responsibility for their deeds than they once were. It used to be the case that a minister found guilty of a serious mistake, or the kind of scandalous personal behaviour attributed to Donald Trump or Silvio Berlusconi, would automatically resign. Now they are more likely to blame their civil servants or a computer glitch, or just brazen it out.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether governments have a harder job today than they did 100 years ago. Modern communications make it easier to keep in touch with what is happening throughout a country; a track and trace system could not even have been attempted before computers. But governments have also taken on much wider responsibilities, such as the running of a national health service and other aspects of the welfare state.

Word Watch

Vaunted
Boasted of. It comes from a Latin verb meaning to speak empty words.
Premises
The assumptions that underlie an argument. It can also mean the area enclosed by a building.
Glitch
A sudden malfunction of equipment. It may be related to a Yiddish word for a slippery place.
Saturated fats
Fats found in food such as butter, cheese and red meat. In large quantities they can lead to health problems such as heart disease.
Concorde
An Anglo-French supersonic aeroplane, it was supposed to cost £70 million but ended up costing £1.3 billion.
DeLorean “supercar”
In the 1970s the British government gave American entrepreneur John DeLorean a £58 million subsidy to build a futuristic car in Northern Ireland. But DeLorean proved to be a compulsive liar who was later arrested for drug smuggling.
Millennium Dome
Created in London’s Docklands to celebrate the year 2000, its opening night saw thousands of VIPs having to queue in the cold to see a building few were impressed by. It is now the highly successful O2 Centre.
Asset Recovery Agency
Set up to recover money made by criminals from organised crime, it proved uneconomical to run because it cost so much and recovered so little.

Subjects

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