Failure to Learn:- The Role of Politicians

by ukcivilservant

Grenfell Tower, COVID-19 and numerous other examples have in their different ways demonstrated that governments, as well as many other organisations, find it very difficult to learn from previous experience.  This article focusses on how government ministers learn, or too often fail to learn, from catastrophic events.

Ministers’ first reaction to a tragedy will inevitably be defensive.  “We couldn’t have foreseen it, and our preparations were anyway sensible and proportionate to the risk.”  After a while, though, they will recognise the need to learn from the experience.   But then … progress slow or stops   This is sometimes for good reasons, but it is also often because of politicians’ incentives and personalities.

Good Reasons for Delay – Probably

It is generally a mistake to rush to legislate, whatever the reason.  The causes of catastrophe are usually many and complex, and need to be addressed following sensible consultation and analysis.  Here are some of the issues that need to be considered:-

  • It is often necessary to ‘think small, first’. There is no point in introducing new regulations which are incomprehensible to the public or SMEs.
  • If regulation is necessary, might it be sensible to put the onus on employers, or an industry, to decide the best way to meet regulatory objectives? Or does the nature of the risk mean that detailed regulations are required, and if so how soon can we build and fund an Inspectorate to enforce them?
  • Should any new/expanded regulator be funded by industry? Will that incentivise efficient, targeted regulation?  Or will we end up with a tame mouse of a regulator, far too scared to upset its paymasters?

More generally, there is a balance to be struck between under- and over-regulation.  The current government requires the cost to business of many (not all) new regulations to be calculated and then regulations costing three times as much to be repealed. Crucially, the benefits of the new regulation are not to be taken into account in calculating the net cost.  This is a major disincentive to the introduction of worthwhile new regulation, and may have led to delay in improving the building regulations before the Grenfell disaster.

More generally still, Ministers are never free from pressure to introduce new policies or improve old ones.  They can get pretty punch drunk from incessant lobbying, and they would hardly be human if they didn’t occasionally get quite sick of their more persistent critics, even if those critics are making very valid points.  Sadly, therefore, even the best proposals can come to be regarded as yet another element in a long wish list.

So … designing and introducing new laws and regulations need not take many years, but it can’t be done in months.  Unfortunately, even a few months delay can cause the issue to slip a long way down any government’s priority list.  This has been a particular problem as the UK spotlight has swung from Grenfell Tower to Brexit and Covid-19.


None of us are entirely free always to do what we regard as the right thing.  We all have to bear in mind the views of our bosses, Boards and/or shareholders.  Quite properly, by analogy, Ministers cannot totally or for ever ignore the views of the electorate that appointed them.

And many voters are loss-averse.  They are generally reluctant to face immediate loss (more taxation), or regulatory constraints on their behaviour even if these will lead to intangible benefits such as safety or a healthier environment.

Voters will also punish Ministers whom they suspect of over-reaction to real or perceived threats.  Lives would have been saved at Grenfell if there had been fierce enforcement of the rule that doors should slam closed once they were not being used.  But who is going to support such intrusive regulation?

One example of more current relevance was the lampooning of French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot.  She was portrayed in cartoons as a fat idiot and accused of waste and scaremongering, and of exaggerating a problem so as to give money to big business.  Her crime? Ordering large quantities of (ultimately unused) vaccines and masks in advance of the feared H1N1 pandemic.

Finally, in this section, Minsters are all too aware that they are likely to move to a new job – or be sacked – quite soon, and their performance is anyway assessed by voters at least every five years.  They therefore have no incentive to consider the long-term costs or benefits of their policies, and their planning is almost inevitably short term and not strategic.  Put more sharply, any deaths arising from their inaction will most likely occur on someone else’s watch.

Ministers Characters

Last, but not least, we need to remember that our highly adversarial system creates politicians who are not at all like the rest of us, and this has consequences for their behaviour in office.

It makes no sense, for instance, for one Minister to help a rival Minister achieve that Minister’s objective.  All Ministers are fierce rivals, whatever they may say.  The most immediate victim is the cross-department cooperation that should be tackling the most complex problems.

More insidiously, politicians’ precarious career path means that most of them are, deep down, true risk takers.  Also, once in office, they are inevitably forced to take some unpopular decisions.  So they develop a fairly thick skin and are not predisposed to display imagination or ‘chronic unease’.  This in turn means that they seldom react like the rest of us if asked to imagine a disaster that has yet to take place.  Many terrible railway accidents, for instance, all too often followed debates in which the industry and Ministers pointed out that “no-one has died from that yet”.  Similarly, the authorities seemed unconcerned by the numerous pre-Grenfell cladding fires which had failed to make the headlines.

And then, rightly or wrongly, most politicians hold the following to be true:

  • Voters like optimism, positivity and good news. Ministers thus become predisposed to clutch at straws and to suggest that all is going swimmingly when it isn’t.  Much the same happens to officials who, in a crisis (and without any explicit pressure from above), will quickly report anything that looks promising even if the information or analysis is highly uncertain.  But these rose-coloured spectacles reduce the pressure to take action to avoid future calamity.
  • Most (not all) voters hate complexity. Black and white is good.  This drives even clever Ministers to take little interest in complex issues.  There is no reward for putting in the time and effort necessary to fully understand expert advice. It is much easier to speak in clichés and soundbites.  In the regulatory sphere, this results in Minister  preoccupation with cutting – or making bonfires of – red tape.
  • Voters punish mistakes, and mistakes will be loudly trumpeted by the media and the Opposition. Ministers must therefore spend much of their time in defensive mode and certainly cannot publicly entertain the possibility that their preparation for any crisis might have been inadequate, or their previous decisions might have been inadvisable.  This impacts the speed at which politicians learn from disasters, for why should anything change if we already live in the most perfect or worlds? And if they are honest (and foolish) enough to admit error, the media will move on to pursuing their resignation whilst  lawyers will start looking for compensation and prosecutions.

Finally, most Ministers are nowadays career politicians who have never worked within a large organisation.  They can’t understand why their policy statements do not immediately translate into action on the ground, nor why cuts to the resources of regulatory bodies cannot follow several previous sets of cuts without serious consequences.  The resultant light touch regulation or limited inspections might well lead to another serious regulatory failure (and perhaps many deaths) but no-one is likely to blame a Minister for the later performance of what was, after all, an ‘independent’ regulator.

Unless, of course, Sir Martin Moore-Bick does just that.

Martin Stanley
Editor  Understanding Government


This article first appeared as my contribution to the recent Bennett Institute report  Policy Lessons from Catastrophic Events.

Some further thoughts on ‘failure to learn’ are here.

And I recommend the IfG’s report  How Public Inquiries Can lead to Change

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