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. 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, thousands more people who might have the virus had not been contacted.

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 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.

Even Germany, widely regarded as the most efficient nation of all, was embarrassed when the opening of a new airport for Berlin, scheduled for 2012, had to be postponed when half a million faults were discovered.

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.

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.

So is government all useless?

State debate

Some say, yes. It complicates everything. It takes a long time to make decisions and creates excessive paperwork. If the track and trace system were run by a private company, it would be far more efficient.

No, others argue. 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?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture of either Concorde, the DeLorean car or the Millennium Dome.

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 around 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.
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.

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