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Bureaucratic avoidance of responsibility

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The blame game, with its finger-pointing and mutual buck-passing, is a familiar feature of politics and organizational life, and blame avoidance pervades government and public organizations at every level. The frustrations of dealing with organizations whose procedures seem to ensure that no one is responsible for anything are way too typical to be accidental. There are several typical methods of avoiding blame in bureaucracies:

Political and bureaucratic blame games and blame avoidance are more often condemned than analyzed. The only book that exists on the subject is  The Blame Game: Spin, Bureaucracy, and Self-Preservation in Government  (University Press, 2011, 226pp) so all subsequent analysis is derived from it.

In his book Christopher Hood had showed how blame avoidance shapes the workings of government and public services. Arguing that the blaming phenomenon is not all bad, Hood demonstrates that it can actually help to pin down responsibility, and he examines different kinds of blame avoidance, both positive and negative. Blame avoidance manifest themselves in several types of activities:

Both are highly dependent on the architecture of organizations, and in turn shape this architecture as powerful players try to restructure the organization to maximize blame avoidance potential. Tactic not uncommon with gerrymandering. 

Hood analyzes the scope and limits of blame avoidance, and he considers how it is enhanced by means offered by the digital age such as e-mail and websites. Delving into the inner workings of complex institutions, The Blame Game proves how a better understanding of blame avoidance. Here are some quotes from backflap:

"Christopher Hood takes a simple proposition--that politicians and bureaucrats are mainly concerned about blame avoidance -- and uses it to construct a new way of thinking about the organization of public services.

In the process, he turns conventional wisdom about the aims of bureaucratic reform on its head. If you learn nothing from this clever and erudite book, you have only yourself to blame."--Alasdair Roberts, author of The Logic of Discipline

"In this fascinating and excellent book, Hood puts significant concepts--blame and blaming--at the center of our thinking by looking at blame culture and blame games. He emphasizes the functionality of blame in social and institutional life, and the need for managing the frontiers of blame avoidance."--Geert Bouckaert, president, European Group for Public Administration

Here is a several reviews of the  book

Andrew Massey is Professor of Politics at the University of Exeter.

Christopher Hood’s latest monograph addresses a little studied, yet important phenomenon of public administration; blame avoidance and its impact on institutions. Hood draws together evidence from a range of examples throughout mature public administrative systems to explore the positive and negative effects of what has often been labelled a blame culture. Hood places the examples and analysis firmly within its political context and wryly begins his last chapter with a nod towards the cynicism that envelopes much political discourse by quoting former US Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s observation that “to err is human. To blame someone else is politics.”

Hood’s central argument is that understanding the structures, procedures and games employed in blame avoidance, in all its forms, is an important part of understanding political and organisational behaviour. It is also implicit in the way in which public sector managers and professionals design, deliver and evaluate public services and implement a range of public policies. Hood is careful not to over-emphasise the role of blame avoidance, noting that politicians and senior managers will also engage in “credit-claiming,” but it is “a powerful force in shaping the architecture and organization” of the public sector and “often dominates their standard operating routines”.

The book charts and defines the nature and different types of blame and blame avoidance, such as presentational strategies, agency strategies and policy or operational strategies, before discussing the relevance of these logical, but sometimes deviant behaviours for democracy and good governance. In the preface Hood observes that having become alerted to blame avoidance as a phenomenon you start to see it everywhere, and it is a concept that is discussed at all academic levels from the “abstruse philosophical” to petty individual grievances. The importance for those who study or practice public administration (as well as corporate managers) argues Hood, is that blame avoidance leads to a handling of risk that is often inflexible and unintelligent. Given the focus on blame and the desire by the media, the public, and politicians to find scapegoats to blame when things go wrong, Hood believes that “potential losses are commonly weighted more heavily than equivalent gains,” something that is sometimes referred to as “negativity bias.”

In taking us through the permutations and definitions of the concept and its actualization in the form of structures, impact and possible outcomes, Hood employs a style and approach that is open and engaging. Certainly it is cerebral and analytical, but he does not shirk from using what at times is a matey almost tabloid style. For example, when discussing the perspective of street-level bureaucrats and service professionals, her refers to their perception that, “the top bananas and the people in the middle levels will naturally want to place the blame firmly at the door of the individual;” that is the individual public servant involved in an accident or error of some kind. He writes of middle managers as being the “meat in the sandwich” caught between credit seeking politicians and blame avoiding professionals, a perspective with which many of his potential readers will identify.

There are obvious links to some of Hood’s earlier groundbreaking work on New Public Management, such as when he is discussing the different strategies through which senior policy makers can seek to avoid blame. He includes in these a greater recourse to markets and marketization for the delivery of services, the use of quantitative managerial measures and devolved responsibilities and other NPM techniques. All of which provide a veneer of deniability to senior policy makers should they need to insulate themselves from accidents and disasters in part caused through strategic decisions on budgeting, training and general operating procedures.

Hood concludes that although blame avoidance has probably always been with us in various forms, in modern public administrative systems it can be found “wherever motive combines with opportunity. Motive will be strong when potential blame takers have high stakes in preserving their future careers and when potential blame makers can reap benefits from blame arbitration activity”. In part this is a product of the rise of professional politicians, generic managers, who lack the technical skills and experience of those professionals they supervise, plus a substantial increase in legal oversight and review and the search for compensation powered by the legal profession; all exacerbate the negative aspects of the blame culture.

But it also has positive elements. For example blame and the fear of blame also lead people to shy away from breaking or bending rules designed for the preservation of good health and safety, or the prevention and detection of corrupt practice. What Hood labels “blameworld” also serves to keep people honest (in deeds if not in thought) and ensures compliance to norms of behaviour that ensure public servants are conscious of their wider duties to the citizens who provide their employment. In a world where shame has ceased to be a conditioning factor in behaviour, blame has replaced it. In other words, although we may be becoming shameless, we can never be entirely blameless.

John W. Langford (Professor, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria. )

I read this interesting book while working on a paper on the personal moral responsibility of policy advisers. While blame and responsibility are intimately linked (i.e., to accept responsibility is to accept the potential for blame or praise for outcomes emerging from your involvement in an activity), the two projects could not have been more different. My paper argues that policy advisers as a professional group have studiously attempted to avoid personal responsibility for outcomes resulting from their advice, criticizes the arguments made to justify blame avoidance, and makes some points about the institutional costs associated with this amorality. In my paper, blame avoidance is a bad thing. By contrast, Christopher Hood's book pulls together and integrates in very imaginative ways a large, eclectic literature and scores of examples to dispassionately examine blame avoidance as an important and inevitable feature of political and organizational life.

He attempts to "describe, dissect and explain the blame game," argues that some forms of blame avoidance are "good," and, finally, offers "some ideas about how to achieve the right balance" between good and bad blame avoidance (p. ix).

This provocative analysis is developed in the following way. Hood first establishes the logic of "blameworld," examining how the risk of blame is calculated (differently by different government players at different points in career, electoral cycle, etc.) and pointing out the "negativity bias" (the tendency of politicians and administrators to weight the risk of blame higher than the chance of credit or praise). He goes on to look at "blameworld" in more detail, "exploring blame avoidance from the perspective of four types of players" (p. 24), three of them "blame takers" within government (executives, middle managers and front-line public servants). And, the fourth, "blame makers" (the different individuals and external agencies with which a government deals--oddly, in the Canadian context at least, excluding the many auditing and guardian organizations within government). The heartland of this book is the discussion of three sets of blame-avoidance strategies (presentational, agency and policy) employed by political and administrative actors who, Hood argues, have shaped "the conduct of officeholders, the architecture of organizations, and their operating routines and policies" (p. 4). Hood rounds off the analysis by first reflecting on changes in the institutionalization and interaction of the three strategies in modern government, asking questions about how to mix strategies most effectively to avoid blame and assessing the effectiveness of blame-avoidance strategies and their positive and negative impacts on modern democratic government.

Hood's discussion of the three sets of blame-avoidance strategies deserves further attention because he is arguing that the shape and style of modern government to a considerable degree can be seen "as the product of a persistent logic of defensive behaviour to avoid blame in government and public services" (p. 12). This thesis often flies in the face of widely accepted rationales and explanations for the emergence of political and bureaucratic behaviour and the reform of organizational arrangements.

The first of his three strategies focuses on "presentation," including "attempts to affect the harm perception or agency dimension of blame by spin, timing, stage management and various forms of persuasion." (p. 47). Hood sees activities such as "keeping a low profile," "changing the subject" and "pre-emptive apology" as varieties of presentational strategy. He does not pursue a phenomenon that troubles me--the increasing tendency for public servants to become helpmates of politicians in spin and persuasion exercises.

But public servants are front and centre in the delivery of the second approach to blame avoidance: agency strategies. As Hood puts it, "[W]e are dealing here with all the attempts officeholders and organizations make to deflect or limit blame by creative allocation of formal responsibility, competency, or jurisdiction among different units and individuals" (p. 67). Public servants reading this book will have the opportunity to consider the degree to which common bureaucratic activities such as delegating responsibility, reorganization, partnering and outsourcing are really just "opportunities for blame-shifting, buck-passing, and risk transfer to others who can be placed in the front line of blame when things go wrong" (p. 67).

Public servants will also be able to reflect on the salience of Hood's discussion of policy or operational strategies. This third suite of strategies focuses on avoiding blame by "choosing the least-blame policy, procedure or method of operation" (p. 90). This approach can take the form of exercising due diligence, following best practices, shifting responsibility to users of a service, using devices such as web sites and call centres to enhance the anonymity of public servants, and "staying with the herd so that no individual's neck is ever on the block" (p. 97).

Hood's identification and examination of these three sets of strategies should open up discussions of established explanations for why we do government business in certain ways, the degree to which blame avoidance displaces standard rationales, and the notion that benefits might actually flow from the force of blame avoidance. Readers will also be able to test Hood's arguments about the positive benefits of blame-avoidance strategies against their own experience. Regrettably, I found this latter analysis to be pretty unpersuasive.

I noted at the outset my own preoccupation with the problem of establishing the personal moral responsibility of public servants. Hood does not appear to attach much importance to coming at the blame issue from this perspective, referring to an individual's moral compass as a "notoriously cranky instrument" (p. 184). Nevertheless, public servants thinking about the degree to which they are personally responsible for the results of their actions or inactions (and therefore open to being blamed) should read The Blame Game because it would help them come to grips with the "blame avoidance" context within which they must work out this vexing question. This book will also appeal to those who wonder how we could have invested so much institutional effort in establishing accountability in recent years and end up with little to show for it.

This short review does not do justice to the rich collection of examples that Hood draws on to illustrate blame-avoidance strategies in operation. These illustrations, while chosen for effect, do help to make The Blame Game a lively read.


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Old News ;-)

Of recent years and decades there appears to be an ever increasing incidence of responsibility avoidance.

"Me-ism" would seem to be commonly accepted.
Reprehensible activities by corporate leaders (like those contributing to the Global Financial Crisis) seem to to be forgiven because they were only looking after share-holders/ investors/ client interests.
Politically, "spin" allows justification for the most inept behaviour rather than be atoned for by apologies or compensation/ restitution.
Communally, one needn't "look out for" one's friends or neighbours on the basis that "it's not my problem".
Nations, cultures, genders, social issues seem dismiss-able and unconcerning -- despite the broader ramifications -- unless directly involved.

Could this attitude lead to the loss of so many accepted human achievements -- through gradual diminishments or blatant disengagement -- to the common detriment ?

They need to divide, confuse, indoctrinate us and bamboozle us to rule us.

good question and as you've posed it in the Sociology section you might be interested in Etzioni, the sociologist who writes on 'me-ism'.…

this is one of his articles:
'Too Many Rights Too Few Responsibilities' but he's published texts on the topic as well.

In brief he's arguing that the Western (especially the USA) culture that was based principally on 'individualism' in the 18th and 19th centuries has dropped it's balancing value of 'communitarianism'.

Although I dont think he sufficiently explores why this has occurred so his work needs to be complemented with
a)the splendid discussion in the four part series 'the Century of the Self' that the BBC recently produced. They've made it available on the web…

b) the concept, from the Conflict perspective in sociology, of 'contradiction' - that the same processes that generate 'me-ism' ,, the lack of repsonsiblity to others', also generate new forms of communitarianism. ...for example:
- 'yahoo answers' and the range of politically and socially concerned web sites that attract hundreds of thousands of supporters on issues ranging from global slavery to support for refugees
-the instant response from individuals around the world sending funds to organisations like the Red Cross/Red Crescent after the tsunami, earthquake, bushfire disasters in Aceh, Haiti, Australia
-the very existence of these globally based institutions like the Red Cross or UNICEF and the huge numbers of NGOs (usually working on the smell of an oily rag) right around the world
-the extensive 'unpaid labour of caring' that underpins most Western societies…

These don't counteract the 'me-ism' tendencies that consumerism generates but they do co-exist with them . this paradox of course generates exactly the kinds of contradictions in society that sociologist love to thanks for this interesting question

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