Public policy and heritage – blundering on

Blunders bookcoverI have finally got round to reading Anthony King and Ivor Crewe‘s excellent book, ‘The Blunders of our Governments‘. The examples are varied and relate in the main to policy implementation in health, economics, social security and political miscalculation or poor decision making in core Government departments.  Some of it is truly jaw-dropping.  Interestingly however there isn’t much from the cultural portfolio brief considered, beyond the inevitable lamentation on the building of the Millennium Dome. Perhaps that is because Government hiccups in the cultural arena tend to be treated as ‘controversies’ attracting public and press critique, rather than blunders.  The latter sections of the analysis consider the forms of human error and system failures that cause blunders in Government – including cultural disconnects, group-think, what are referred to as ‘musical chairs’, asymmetries of expertise and a deficit of deliberation.  Such underlying causes of blunders can be found in all types of organisation and programme delivery in the public sector – not just the big Government departments or projects, though often at a small scale, and so not necessarily on the radar of a study such as that undertaken by King and Crewe. However, the heritage sector and its organisations have seen such radical transformation in the last year both in England and Scotland, I wonder whether aspects of this structural change will turn out as successfully as hoped for.  Will we be identifying heritage blunders in years to come?  The most obvious candidates for close watching are the moving of the portfolio of historic properties into a separate English Heritage charity which is expected to become self-sustaining over the next 7 years (reliant on increased tourism receipts and commercial performance), and the emergent Historic Environment Scotland which merged Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland.  As a long-standing studier of heritage organisation strategy – begun 21 years ago in my PhD which considered aspects of planning, strategy and operations within English Heritage and the National Trust (originally published as ‘Heritage Transformed‘)  – the dynamics of heritage organisations and their operations remains as interesting and understudied as ever, and as the finances of the sector become ever more squeezed in the next few years and with a Culture White Paper for England on the horizon, we must be vigilant for blunders in the making.

Author: Ian Baxter

Heritage management / historic preservation academic at Heriot-Watt University; Vice-Chair of the Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS); Trustee of The Heritage Alliance. Obsessed by administrative histories of heritage organisations, heritage signs, and the design of site guidebooks.

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