Avoiding blame is a behaviour that comprises a variety of integrity protecting activities by those who hold office in light of activities that attract blame. According to Weaver (1986), the motivation of blame avoidance is a result of avoiding the losses that result from blame. These losses usually involve a career in public service goals which the actors are pursuing and therefore must be protected by all means. Several studies have found that persons in positions of authority aim to consolidate their institutional power, protect their image, and leave a political legacy (Beland, 2007, Moyniham, 2012). When these goals are threatened, motivation to escape blame becomes a priority. Generally, government policies and actions frequently result in public outrage and orchestrated scandals aimed at individual or group policymakers. When confronted with the threat of losing reputation and resources, officeholders are motivated to use blame-avoidance techniques that pervade administrative structures and activities. This essay seeks to provide an understanding of some of the strategies that those responsible for developing policies employ to avoid blame. The essay begins by providing an understanding of the concept of blame in the policy sphere and then delves into the various strategies employed by policy actors.
Implications of blame
Receiving blame is well known for destroying one’s or an organization’s reputation, as well as resulting in the loss of power, income, and job security for those in positions of authority. As a result, policymakers may be tempted to employ blame avoidance methods that pervade administrative structures and activities. However, blame-related defence tactics used by government insiders can have societal ramifications. They have the potential to derail, hinder, or prohibit public discourse on specific policy problems, change political agendas and alliances, legitimize some players while disempowering others (Howlett, 2012). As Birkland (1998) highlights, an occurrence or issue that arises on the political agenda and leads to blaming targeted at the actors is the basis for blame avoidance behaviour occurring in a certain context. This focusing on events creates an action circumstance by upsetting the regular flow of events. It is important to note that the threat is only a perceived threat and not quite the actual related which is associated with a situation that results in actions situations prompting those who hold office to engage in blame avoidance strategies (Wenzelburger, 2011).
Elements that impact blame avoidance strategies
There are various factors that affect the blame avoidance strategy employed by an actor or an agency. As Hinterleitner and Sager (2015) indicate, an agency considers a number of factors before choosing a blame avoidance strategy. One of the key elements of consideration is the characteristic of the crisis. This involves the extent to which crisis may impact negatively society. Another element of consideration is the political and economic environment. This as Hood et al (2009) notes include the governmental structure and the manipulation by the media as well as politicians. Furthermore, elements connected to the agency level, such as the primary cause of the crisis, the perceived linkage between the crisis occurrence and the agency, as well as the organization’s reputation, resources, and knowledge. Finally, as mentioned by Boin et al (2010), another critical factor is the leader’s personality and leadership style.
Hinterleitner and Sager (2015) contend that the fact of the matter, availability of information, perception of the evidence gained, and public understanding all influence the likelihood and extent of blame at the agency level. When agencies or actors consider choosing a blame avoidance strategy and the interaction that develops in the case of a crisis, information and the way it is interpreted play a crucial role. Wang and Tsai (2021) proposed two agency-related factors that influence blame avoidance strategies: the proportion of culpability that an agency is required to bear and the amount of perceived responsibility that the media believes the agency will bear. With actual responsibility of an agency for example, this highlights the significance of the truth. After an eruption of a crisis, an investigation ensues and hence, more information becomes evident. Should the agency become responsible for the crisis on the basis of truth, it becomes difficult to evade blame and this affects the blame avoidance strategies. The second element is the amount of perceived responsibility the public and the media thinks an agency is liable to take. This highlights the significance of information, interpretation and perception. The media plays a crucial role as a result of the content reported which affects the way the public perceives events.
Blame avoidance strategies
In most cases, blame avoidance strategies are employed after an event has occurred. However, this is not usually the case such that the blame avoidance behaviour can either be anticipatory or reactive. By anticipatory means that under some specific circumstances, actors may anticipate blame from a specific action and therefore try to be prepared in order to protect their goals. An issue for example may be having intensified public attention for a while or policies may force those responsible for developing them to make unpopular decisions or even actors may be appointed to solve challenging policy problems and the implication is that the actors come to the realization that they are working in dangerous conditions. This realization is such that, damage may have serious ramifications if all does not go as expected. Research in public policy has established that blame avoidance behaviour is considered to be an extensive aspect of the political sphere. There are numerous situations where those who hold office attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility and this does not only revolve around retrenchment (Hinterleitner and Sager, 2017).
Anticipatory blame avoidance
In this broad category of blame avoidance, the goal is to keep off a potentially blameworthy event and also prepare for it. The primary motivations for anticipatory blame avoidance action are as follows: the first goal is to limit the likelihood of a blameworthy incident occurring so that it does not surface on the political agenda and draw blame. As a result, actors employ policy tactics designed to decrease individual accountability through the thoughtful consideration and adaptation of operating procedures and rules (Hinterleitner and Sager, 2017). The other goal is to prepare for the possibility of a blame game if the event begins to develop into a blameworthy event. As a result, those in positions of authority employ agency strategies aimed at delegating, diffusing, or deferring culpability to others. As a result, the actors are able to place themselves in advantageous positions in the eventuality of a reactive blame game (Hood, 2011). The nature of a blameworthy occurrence and the obtainability of precise resources determine the application of certain agency and policy solutions, as well as their chances of success. It is not necessarily that a blameworthy event allows a full range of policy and agency strategies mentioned above to be applied.
In terms of resources, officeholders must have access to knowledge as well as formal authority in order to properly implement agency and policy strategies. Significant information about one’s accountability area allows one to detect events that carry a high chance of being blamed (Hinterleitner and Sager, 2017). While this may seem straightforward in some circumstances, such as when a subject attracts a lot of attention for a short period of time, blameworthy occurrences regularly surprise officeholders. It’s possible that information alone won’t be enough. Agency strategies such as repositioning responsibility or policy strategies such as those that aim to modify potentially the elements of policies that attract blame can be successful only if actors have the official authority to do so. As Hood (2002) points out, persons working in related policy areas may try to block the delegation of responsibility in some cases. As a result, there may be cases where actors are cognizant of circumstances that could lead to blame in their sphere of duty, but they lack the official power to work on policy issues and overcome resistance.
When a potentially blameworthy event is discovered and the resources to prepare are available, actors must decide how much of their anticipatory resources to dedicate to keeping the event from being blameworthy. While not all resources are used up during such an event, the majority of them cannot be used indefinitely. Because not every function can be transferred away, delegation mechanisms, for example, should only be used sparingly. As a result, officeholders must carefully consider which occurrences provide a significant danger of blame and thus focus the majority of their anticipatory efforts on these events (Hinterleitner and Sager, 2017). The expected responses of political and media elites, as well as the general public, if a subject is included on the political agenda, define the issue’s blame risk. According to Soss and Schram (2007), the greater the expected public response effect, the more committed the political and media elites are to taking advantage of the situation and blaming the responsible officeholder. However, officeholders face a trade-off in that the most effective forms of blame avoidance come at the expense of taking credit when things go well. Successful efforts or decisions that have been hidden or delegated are a lost opportunity to take credit, resulting in a progressive loss of political capital. Individual commitment in anticipatory blame avoidance behaviour is thus likely to be influenced by the degree of negative bias in a particular policy area. The more politicized and crisis-prone a policy area is, the more efforts the actor will devote to avoiding blame, and thus the more blame avoidance measures, such as delegation and public-private partnerships are applied simply put, in a high-risk policymaking setting, actors should focus on avoiding blame rather than claiming credit (Nielsen, & Baekgaard, 2015).
Reactive blame avoidance
The other major broad approach that actors apply is reactive blame avoidance. This majorly encompasses the publicly visible conformation of blame. The goal is to win a blame game in the case a blameworthy event develops thus the actor tries to mitigate adverse political implications such as resigning, being demoted, or losing one’s reputation (Hinterleitner and Sager, 2017). In comparison to anticipatory blame games where a low profile is maintained, in this case, this is characterized by public visibility. Different actors based on the nature of the blameworthy event are brought onto action forming the actor collection of the reactive blame game. According to Boin et al (2010), the arena or environment is crucial in structuring the form of interaction for which blamed actors are to apply. In particular, the arena provided crucial information concerning the actors involved and the type of environment in which the interaction would occur. In this case, there are no trade-offs and actors must rely on a variety of blame-management tactics Policy and agency strategies, in this case, are less useful in the sense that they cannot be used in expedient situations. As Hood (2011) notes, one of the strategies is presentational strategies which aim at shaping the perception of the public and framing the public debate concerning the blameworthy event. These include justification, discourse, framing, persuasion and priming. Furthermore, the actors who are blamed show commitment by launching inquiries or proposing reforms aimed at solving the blameworthy event or solving its implications (Brandstrom, 2015). Also, the demotion of subordinates is also an approach that is applied to impede adversaries as Dewan and Dowding (2005) noted.
Just like anticipatory blame strategies, the success of reactive blame strategies depends on the disposability of various resources (Hinterleitner & Sager, 2017). Institutional and power play are critical. As Brandstrom and Kuipers (2003) noted, when actors hold some specific advantages in terms of dispersing and withholding information, for example, the access to media with ease, the actors can present events in a way that is beneficial. In case they have the capacity to launch inquiries, they are able to show commitment. Officeholders who usually tend to be in the public limelight must have argumentative skills. This has a significant impact on public opinion. Another asset that allows officeholders to impact public opinion to their benefit is their prior prominence and the trust that it brings. When a policy actor tends to be popular and the public has trust in their government, the actor enjoys substantial public confidence and credibility and this means that the success of selling their frame to be public is high. The public tends to be more sympathetic and forgiving to an actor who admits responsibility and happens to be popular and trusted. Another key resource is group membership with blame avoidance behaviour. Actors who can count on backing from their party or the head of government might fare much better in a reactive blame game. For example, ministers will heavily rely on the support of the head of the government. Should the minister be sacrificed by the head of government, as a way of increasing government popularity as Dewan and Dowding (2005) suggest, then it would be hard to avoid negative implications.
In addition to the two broad classifications, there are various classifications of blame avoidance strategies as proposed by different scholars. Other classifications are such as those described by Hood (2007) who explored blame avoidance strategies agency strategies, presentational and policy strategies. Besides this division, another classification is by Hood (2009) which categorizes the strategies as Problem denial, problem admission but responsibility denial, and problem and responsibility admission. Hanson (2015) discussed in broad various linguistic approaches to blame avoidance. In his research, he examined a variety of real-life textual samples from public remarks by UK officeholders to demonstrate how blame avoidance works at the highest levels of government. These strategies are applied by policy actors when policies go wrong. The most commonly used features include blaming and denying methods, as well as argumentative moves in conflict resolution discussions. The next section discusses some of these approaches especially those highlighted by Hansson (2015) who references the works by Hood to a large extent.
Approaches to arguing
When officeholders face blame risk for example in public debate situations, specific ways of arguing aimed at convincing the audience of not being blameworthy are applied. In this scenario, the actor uses argumentative techniques to alter the perception of a loss by claiming that they have no cause to be blamed because little or no harm has been done, and the perception of agency by claiming that the harm was done unintentionally or by someone else (Hansson, 2015). The employment of pseudo-argumentative backing for statements that ignore certain premises of rational conversation is referred to as blame-shifting argumentative tactics (Hansonn, 2015). These fallacies include shifting of responsibility, attacking the character of the opponent in order to discredit them, misrepresenting the position of the opponent, coming to a conclusion that proposition is true since most people believe so, appealing to public feelings of compassion, presenting false analogies, and making claims that temporary implications equal causality and use of unclear, ambiguous or unfamiliar languages. It is also important to note that blame deflection argumentation involves the use of specific conclusion rules. These rules as Wodak (2011) notes are applied to justify and legitimize positions rather than providing evidence that is concrete. As a result, other people or groups are made scapegoats and vilified for any problems that arise.
Rejection is considered as one of the preferential approaches of reacting to blame. According to Van Dijk (1992), the common defence strategies are act denial, control-denial, intentional-denial, goal-denial and mitigations. Furthermore, there are other stronger forms of denial which include victim-blaming and reversal. The goal of these strategies is to alter the perception of blame takers’ agency. However, denying is not always the best way to get rid of the sense of a loss. It may be more alluring for actors to avoid mentioning problematic issues entirely, or if they are forced to discuss specific actions, they may make lexical choices that effectively conceal them. Another approach is social actor representation. In this approach devised by Van Leeuwen (2008), it shifts the focus to exclusion, suppression and backgrounding of victims of blame. For example, vagueness is an implicit goal of avoiding personal blame risks. As a result, actors avoid mentioning risky situations or actions.
Actors appear to acknowledge that harm or failure occurred when they withhold or mask blameworthy aspects in text and speech, or when they use reasoning, framing, and control denial to dispute accountability for specific instances of ostensible harm or failure. They may, however, take a different approach, assuming full responsibility while seeking to depict the events or situations in question in a more favourably way by employing legitimation techniques Hanson (2015). Legitimization involves explanations and justifications of specific practices which are seen as an answer to the spoken or unspoken why question. The responses to blaming are divided into four broad categories. One of these categories is authority legitimation which involves the use of personal references, impersonal references, commendations or references to customs. There is also moral evaluation legitimation which involves the use of references to value systems. Another approach is rationalization legitimation which involves referencing the goals, uses and implications of institutionalized social action (Van Leeuwen 2007). Finally, there is the use of narratives in which case legitimate actions are rewarded and those that are not punished. These strategies are usually applied in order to end debates instead of resolving the differences in opinions through critical discussion. Manipulation strategy is another approach that actors usually employ. This occurs when a powerful group utilizes its influence to harm the interests of those who are less powerful in society. It also entails an explicit plot to obstruct information comprehension and lead to the construction of mental models that are not in the recipients’ best interests.
Based on the above strategies, Hood (2011) provided insightful classifications of presentational blame avoidance strategies which are evident in public administration. He noted that these involve the use of arguments to limit blame, justification strategies am approaches of influencing the impression of the public. The assumption is that presentational activity deflects blame. One of the approaches applied is aiming to win the argument. Persuasive excuses and justifications are therefore offered such that the actors try to show that there is no problem. In denial of the problem, actors may deny totally, partially or denial that is accompanied by a counterattack. This could include justifications or excuses, as well as unfavourable other-presentation. The argument could be based on victim–victimizer reversal, disparaging the opponent, intimidating the opponent, and using symptomatic arguments to transfer blame. Actors could employ comparisons or equating methods to contextualize and downplay the problem. For example, an actor would say, “This is the way the government has always dealt with the issue” or “Yes, we made a mistake, but other institutions failed, too.” In a narrative that attempts to salvage the situation (rescue narrative frame), actors may try to portray themselves as victims by claiming that their behaviour is in the interest of self-defence and accusing an outside player as the “bad guy” (Hansson, 2015).
Another strategy is to issue a preemptive apology in a bid to calm criticism and garner support. Apologizing can help an officeholder create a positive image in particular situations, but it can also be dangerous for the responsibility taker: Apologies can be taken as admissions of guilt, resulting in dismissal by higher-ranking officials, or they can result in more demands. Others will use a distraction approach to try to avoid the blame limelight by shifting the public attention to other matters and finding suitable occasions to disclose the unfortunate events. Hood also analyzes the potential beneficial and bad societal impacts of government organizations’ adoption of presentational methods. He contends that measures centred on evading public debate could be viewed as normatively harmful (Hansson, 2015)..
There is a rapid change in recent times on the political agenda, as well as media-induced politicization and scandalization of events which are increasingly defining characteristics of modern policymaking. These changes have ramifications for the people who are at the core of public affairs and public interests. Blame avoidance behaviour is considered to have a wide range of effects on the nature and functioning of political institutions. Policy actors apply a wide range of blame strategies when faced with negative concerns from policies developed. Actors may employ complex and creative tactics of deflecting blame, such as putting blameworthy events in the background of their text and speech or making blame seem less directed at times. There are different forms of blame avoidance strategies but broadly, the two major classifications are anticipatory and reactive strategies. Comprehending anticipatory and reactive forms of blame avoidance behaviour is an important step toward developing a more realistic understanding of actors, their actions, and the consequences of their actions
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