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Unintended Consequences of Public Policy Initiatives and Reforms (ESRC/OII Public Service Workshop Series HT2007)

Date & Time:
00:00:00, Tuesday 23 January -
00:00:00, Tuesday 27 February, 2007


Background to the series

This workshop series, which has been going for several years, is a small informal group of faculty and graduate students interested in the analysis of public services and executive government.

The analysis of unintended effects of social action is a classic theme in all of the social sciences. Among the standard analytic lenses for examining such effects are the Mertonian tradition of analysing unintended effects of social interventions, cultural theories of surprise and the analysis of discontinuities and unexpected couplings in the operation of complex systems. The lunchtime workshops, involving participants from a range of disciplines from engineering to anthropology, will aim to look at a range of cases of public policy initiatives and reforms from an ‘unintended consequences’ perspective, and to reflect on the general analytic themes that they raise. They will draw on some of the work done in the ESRC ‘Public Services’ programme of which Christopher Hood is currently Director, and will aim to work wherever possible on the basis of pre-circulated short papers, with very short presentations followed immediately by discussion.





Week 2

Tues 23 Jan

Helen Margetts (Mansfield and OII, Oxford) Introduction to the workshop and ‘The Unintended Effects of Policies to Increase Competition in Government IT Contracting’.

Week 3

Tues 30 Jan

Will Jennings (CARR, LSE) ‘Spectactular Surprises? The Unintended Effects of State-Sponsored Games and Celebrations’.

Week 4

Tues 6 Feb

Guro Huby (University of Edinburgh) ‘Business as usual? Longer term Implications of the 2004 GMS Contract for Organisation of UK General Practice’.

Week 5

Tues 13 Feb

Nick Tyler (Civil & Environmental Engineering Accessibility Research Group, UCL) ‘Squeezing the Balloon: What Happens When You Decide to Limit the Use of Cars’.

Week 6

Tues 20 Feb

Charlotte Halpern (Maison Francaise d’Oxford and Sciences-Po, Paris) ‘The Unintended Consequences of Participatory Instruments on Airport Policy in France, Germany and the UK’.

Week 7

Tues 27 Feb

David McCoy (UCL) ‘Following Sweden? The Unintended Effects of Bed-Blocking Policies in England’. Christopher Hood (All Souls, Department of Politics and IR) will also offer some closing reflections on general themes in the workshop, or it may be decided to organize a discussion of such themes on another occasion.

Background reading

We shall want to swap ideas about some key readings on the theme of unintended consequences. To start off, here are nine items selected by Christopher Hood:

  • Brooks, H. (1986) The Typology of Surprises in Technology, Institutions and Development. Ch 11 in W.C.Clark and R.E.Munn (eds) Sustainable Development of the Biosphere (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, CUP: Cambridge), pp. 325-350.

  • Collingridge, D. (1992) The Management of Scale: Big Organizations, Big Decisions, Big Mistakes (Routledge: London).

  • Hood, C. and Peters, B.G. (2004) The Middle Aging of New Public Management: Into the Age of Paradox? Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 14:267-282.

  • Levitt, S. and Dubner, S. (2006) Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Penguin: London) (current best-seller).

  • Merton, R.K. (1936) The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action. American Sociological Review 1:894-904.

  • Merton, R.K. (1998) Afterword: Unanticipated Consequences and Kindred Sociological Ideas: A Personal Gloss. In: C.Mongardine and S.Tabboni (eds) Robert K. Merton and Contemporary Sociology (Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick), pp. 295-318.

  • Moore, W.E. and Tumin, M.M. (1949) Some Social Functions of Ignorance. American Sociological Review 14:787-795.

  • Moynihan, D.P. (1969) Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding (Free Press: New York).

  • Sieber, S. (1981) Fatal Remedies (Plenum: New York).

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  • Professor Helen Margetts
  • Name: Professor Helen Margetts|Professor Christopher Hood
  • Affiliation: OII|All Souls; Department of Politics and International Relations, University
    of Oxford
  • Role: Convenor|Convenor
  • URL:|
  • Bio: |