Blame games

Kai Wegrich co-authors paper on the politics of evading public responsibility in the European Political Science Review.

Taking a close look at a major public transport crisis in Berlin, Tobias Bach and Kai Wegrich explore the role of complex institutional settings in assigning and avoiding public blame for crises. “The politics of blame avoidance in complex delegation structures: the public transport crisis in Berlin,” written by University of Oslo Professor of Political Science and former Hertie School postdoc Tobias Bach and Hertie School Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy Kai Wegrich, was published in October in the European Political Science Review.

The paper analyses how people working in the public bureaucracy and institutions with “complex delegation structures” actively use this complexity to diffuse blame for errors or mismanagement. This makes it difficult to clearly assign responsibility for a problem.

Examining media coverage of a major public transport crisis in Berlin in 2009, the authors analyse the dynamics of blame and blame management strategies. The Berlin case “provides a suitable context for developing and testing claims regarding the dynamics at play in complex service delivery structures,” they write. “Our empirical, theoretical, and methodological contribution can pave the way towards systematic comparative analyses of blame dynamics in complex institutional structures.”

Wegrich and Bach demonstrate how public attribution of blame follows a distinct pattern over a period of time, in which politicians only gradually come into the public focus to be held accountable. They find that those under scrutiny manage blame in a characteristic sequence of actions and reactions, shifting responsibility to others. But they also say that complex delegation structures tend to limit these blame-avoidance strategies, and that the effectiveness of such “sequential presentational management” abates over time.

Access the full article here.

More about Kai Wegrich

  • Kai Wegrich , Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy