Government policy mistakes and failures: unintended or ignored consequences?

We all know – or at least those of us who are able and willing to undertake periods of self-evaluation and critical thinking do – that our actions have both intended and unintended consequences. This applies regardless of whether we act as individuals or as members of groups and collectives (e.g. families, interest groups, political parties, managers, shareholders, union members, etc), or indeed whether we’re acting in a professional or private capacity.

I was reminded of this truism when reading Jonathan Freedland’s opinion piece in The Guardian on Wednesday ( ) where he asks of May’s Brexit defeat in Parliament on Tuesday evening: So how did it come to this? What led May, Parliament and the country to this moment?

The answer, as Freedland explains, depends on how far back in time one wants to go. But one causal event – probably the one that most of us might consider the actual trigger mechanism – is the action of one, David Cameron, in 2013 announcing that there would be an ‘in or out’ referendum before 2017. We all know why Cameron choose that course of action. It was – as with much that May has done and continues to do – for no other reason than that he (and his advisers, etc) deemed it necessary to keep the Tory Party from losing power in the event of an election. Interestingly, the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which thanks to Brexit has now become an important factor in UK politics, was adopted for much the same reason. That is, to make it much more difficult for an incumbent PM and government – the Con/Dem coalition in Cameron’s specific case – to lose power.

The nature, scale and extent of unintended consequence can vary, of course. For example, last year I did a lot of work in my garden, including digging a pond, draining, cleaning and deepening another, and laying a patio. The outcome was much as I intended as far as my garden was concerned. But unfortunately for me when undertaking so much heavy work I hurt my back. And so, I’ve suffered a range of unintended consequences which have impacted on various aspects of my life. Still, at least the impact of the unintended consequences of my action as an individual is relatively limited when it comes to other people.

That’s not the case with Cameron’s, of course. Much as I dislike the man I’ve little doubt that he never intended his actions to lead to Brexit. That said, given Cameron’s circumstances and background, and of those around him – such as ‘six jobs’ Osborne (as Private Eye refers to him) – I’m prepared to accept that maybe he wasn’t that bothered about which way the referendum went as whatever the outcome it would have little impact on him personally or the wealthy people he associates with. Nevertheless, I still think it safe to say that the Brexit catastrophe that has now come to dominate UK politics and much else is a genuine example of an unintended consequence of his action.

I want to contrast this, however, with what I used to refer to when I taught policy studies as unrecognised consequences. In practice these are a variant of unintended consequence. But whereas true or real examples of unintended consequences are precisely that because they are difficult or impossible to predict, unrecognised consequences aren’t. They are both knowable and predictable to a lesser or greater extent. They can also be accidentally or deliberately unrecognised. In the latter case they therefore become ignored consequences.

For example, in a policy making context (and here I’m referring to a simple version of the policy cycle consisting of formulation and implementation), those involved may genuinely not have the time, expertise or resources necessary to fully develop their understanding of how a policy is going to be implemented, or, when it is, what the outcomes and impacts might be. Typically in this situation when things go awry with a policy – when issues arise with implementation (‘delivery’ in today’s parlance) and/or where the outcomes and impacts are at variance with what was intended when a policy was formulated  – those involved can admit there are issues (even if they don’t admit they were at fault) and seek to address these in some way or another.

Taking examples from my own experience, I’ve been involved in formulating policy where, due to constraints on resources and the availability of relevant expertise, the costs of implementing a policy in a comprehensive manner were underestimated and thus the policy was less effective than was planned because the roll-out was restricted. Similarly, I’ve also been involved in policy implementation/delivery where the demand for a service has been significantly underestimated, again, largely because time (politicians were pushing for a quick roll-out) and resource constraints meant the team involved in formulating the policy were not able to fully assess this element of the policy.

Of course, assessing and predicting how any particular policy is going to be implemented/delivered and what the actual outcomes and impacts (consequences) will be in advance of a policy going live is always difficult. It gets more difficult the more wide ranging and extensive in scale and scope a policy is. While another complicating factor is added to this process when those formulating a policy have little or nothing to do with delivery – as is the case when delivery is contracted out and/or privatised.*

That said, in my experience any person or team of people working on a policy who undertake a straightforward risk or impact analysis, even if this is limited to their own knowledge and common sense, and even when under pressure, can almost always surface a list of consequences that are predictable and that can then be considered. Sadly, now we live in an age where almost all policy is ideologically driven not evidence based it’s commonplace to come across endless examples of policy where this aspect of policy making has been deliberately ignored or suppressed. Thus, we routinely get claims that negative outcomes are unintended consequences, when in reality they are actually deliberately unrecognise or ignored consequences.

Universal Credit must be one of the single most graphic examples of this, particularly because so many experts and organisations with experience in that policy domain pointed to the issues/consequences that would arise. Ditto many aspects of the Windrush scandal. The franchising system for our railways is another example, as in general terms is the privatisation of the delivery of many public services. And then there are examples such as this that I came across in a recent edition of Private Eye.

Many of us will remember the scandal of the treatment of animals in some of our abattoirs that became public a few years ago. The upshot was that the government formulated a policy and subsequently passed legislation which meant that abattoirs had to install CCTV systems, the presence of which would then act as a deterrent for such behaviour. The legislation applied to all abattoirs in England and Wales regardless of size or profitability. Now, CCTV systems are not cheap, and so it doesn’t take a genius to think about some of the consequences of implementing this policy, particularly with regard to small, local abattoirs, the existence of which are essential to maintaining a system of sustainable, locally sourced, food production and animal welfare. But as Private Eye points out, no allowance was made for this perfectly knowable and obvious consequence and thus some small, local, abattoirs were unable to install CCTV by the required date. Thus, enforcement action or closure become a consequence.  To quote Private Eye: ‘Responding to pleas from the Sustainable Food Trust that small abattoirs need cash help to install CCTV cameras the Food Standards Agency (FSA) merely says: “The FSA begun enforcement action against all operators who are yet to comply as set out in our guidelines. Businesses who fail to do so will face further enforcement action.”’.

Not only is this another classic example of ignoring a blatantly obvious knowable and predictable consequence of the implementation of a policy, it’s also a stark example of how far the concept of “joined-up government” has been trashed following the time and effort put into establishing this concept and practice across government in the late 1990s and 2000s. Thus, we have the FSA pursuing a policy with consequences that directly undermine many of the stated intentions of Michael Gove since he’s been secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

As the case of Universal Credit, rail franchises, and many more examples I could choose from every branch of government illustrate, when confronted with evidence of significant issues or negative impacts of their policies it has now become a standard defence of ministers, senior civil servants, and those associated with the management of the privatised delivery of public services, that these are the unintended consequences of their department’s or an organisation’s actions and therefore nobody should be held to account for such failings. The same applies to Brexit and May’s actions in particular. And yet, when analysed, the possibility that the negative outcomes and impacts of public policy that we see and experience on a regular basis are actually what’s claimed and not deliberately unrecognised consequences – that is, they have been deliberately ignored – is difficult to accept. What the motive might be for adopting such an approach, and then manufacturing the false narrative that goes with it, is a question I’ll leave you to answer.


* It is worth noting that the division of policy formulation from implementation across central government was a planned move – and a very convenient element of the outsourcing/privatisation agend – because it puts distance between departmental ministers and civil servants and thus breaks the chain of ministerial responsibility that used to apply. Now ministers can and do routinely claim little or no knowledge of policy delivery issues as that side of policy making has effectively been removed from their purview.


  1. Sean Danaher -

    thanks. I find the current government willfully blind, extraordinarily incompetent. They also seem callous, uncaring and cruel.

    Chris Grayling seems to be so incompetent, that it is difficult to believe he still can be in a job. Talk of “blue tinted spectacles” seems implausible, but Simon and Garfunkel said

    “Still a man hears what he wants to hear
    And disregards the rest”

    I really think too much Kool Aid has been drunk. Modern ultra-conservatism/neoliberalism is far more like a cult religion than and well thought out philosophy.

  2. Neil Robertson -

    Hi Ivan,

    I agree that in many cases stupidity or ideology is responsible for unfortunate consequences of policy implementation. However if there is a genuine desire to learn and refine, one of the most effective approaches is to trial policies/soft launch them and apply the lessons from the real world consequences.

    In the case of abattoirs it would have been possible to review the reasons for non-compliance and adjust accordingly (grants for cctv etc.) whilst pausing any enforcement actions.

    Instead we see so often politicians have their pet projects/prejudices which are implemented in the face of the evidence and with disdain for experts in the field. Difficulties are then dismissed rather than being embraced as opportunities to learn.

Comments are closed.