Unintended, unanticipated or unexpected consequences of policy and surprises for government: understanding how bias and process shape causation – comparing British governments, 1959-74
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The vulnerability of policymaking to unintended and unanticipated consequences has been documented since Thucydides. Yet we still lack integrated conceptual and explanatory accounts of their variety and aetiology. Adequate consideration of putatively unintended and unanticipated consequences requires evidence about policymakers’ prior intentions and anticipations, the factors affecting their cognition, and the forces bearing upon responses to attempted execution of policies. This study uses archival evidence about three post-war British governments to examine hypotheses derived from neo-Durkheimian institutional theory. It compares relationships between policymakers’ informal social organization and their biases in framing anticipations and intentions in three policy fields. It shows that, contrary to widely made claims about a ‘law’ of unintended consequences, neither unintended nor unexpected consequences are random, but reflect basic patterns in variation and aetiology which the neo-Durkheimian theory explains well.