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Blame Avoidance

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Blame Avoidance

Political or bureaucratic behaviour driven by the motivation of avoiding blame for negative outcomes.

(Ian Clark drawing on Hood 2007, 197-202)

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Blame-avoidance is often claimed to be central to both political and bureaucratic behaviour. It is often linked to negativity bias. Its political manifestation is said to be a tendency for dissatisfaction to produce proportionately higher levels of activity and changes in allegiance (particularly in voting turnout, vote switching among parties and voter punishment of poor performance) than corresponding levels of satisfaction (see Lau 1985). Such asymmetry has often been noted in voting studies, and it often appears in studies of institutional behaviour as well. In particular, a similar bias is often said to operate in public bureaucracies, with more reaction to negative than to positive outcomes producing what is loosely called ‘risk aversion’.

A key test of political power can be said to be the ability to overcome or counteract negativity bias. Government reform programmes now typically include aspirations to counter excessive blame-aversion in public administration through red tape-busting activity, for instance in attempts to reduce the incidence of back-covering checking processes inside government, or to assess the worth of regulatory burdens against risk. A whole new bureaucratic language and practice of risk management has emerged, sharing at least its vocabulary with business practice, to balance desires to avoid blame if things go wrong against cost and other desiderata. And governments and public managers put in a great deal of effort and investment to stress the positive aspects of their performance and achievement in the face of critics accentuating the negatives. But it is at least an open question as to whether such mechanisms in practice counter or augment blame-avoidance imperatives in executive government.

In political science there is no definitive account of the various strategies officeholders can pursue for blame-avoidance. At east, three broad kinds of blame-avoidance strategy can be identified namely agency strategies, presentational strategies and policy strategies (see Hood 2002; Sulitzeanu-Kenan and Hood 2005). Agency strategies can be defined as attempts by officeholders or institutions to avoid or limit blame by the way that formal responsibility, competency or jurisdiction is allocated among institutions and officeholders (Hood 2002: 16). Presentational strategies are attempts to avoid or limit blame by spin, timing, stage management and argument, for example by offering plausible excuses, turning blame into credit by justificatory arguments that accentuate the positive or by diverting public attention onto other matters (Hood 2002). Policy strategies are attempts by officeholders or institutions to avoid or limit blame by the substance or content of what they do rather than in how its presentation is handled or who is placed in the front line of responsibility for directing it (Hood 2002).

These three types of blame-avoidance strategy, are not claimed to exhaust all the possible approaches to avoiding or limiting blame. Moreover, each of them comes in a variety of different forms, which are not detailed here for reasons of space, and each of them is problematic at the margin. For example, agency strategies will reach their limits as a method of deflecting blame when formally declared lines of responsibility are not credible. Presentational strategies will reach their limits at the point where the ‘spin’ activity of officeholders itself becomes the central source of criticism, with spin-doctors acting as blame magnets rather than blame deflectors. Policy strategies will reach their limits when there is no available blame-avoiding position, or an equal level of blame can be expected from all the available courses of action. For example, where errors of commission will attract exactly the same amount of blame as errors of omission, there is no single most efficacious blame-management.

References

Hood, Christopher. 2007. "What Happens when Transparency Meets Blame Avoidance?" Public Management Review 9 (2): 191-210.


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© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance