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Can government learn from history?

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 16 August 2021

The United States has lost in Afghanistan. Some of us warned about the risks of the US operation right from the start two decades ago.

Instead of vindicating our views, I want to argue for a radical proposal: the need for government to learn from its mistakes. This is not the usual "applied history" approach, namely, that there are "lessons" to be learned from history, such as the Graham Allison best-seller on the Thucydides Trap, which is warning about a risk of a US-China war based on case studies drawn from the last five centuries.

Instead, I would like to propose that parliament requires government to have a mechanism to study its own successes and failures. This would help (to use modern management jargon) to turn government into a "learning organization".


In societies where people can vote freely, there is a decline in voter participation. People are voting more but enjoying it less. There is a reduced confidence in government. Government (irrespective of political party) just seems to lurch from one problem to another – and sometimes even repeating the same errors.

Individual humans can often learn from their mistakes, such as stopping smoking. Why can't government?

The US Army, following on from some corporations, has an "after action review" (AAR) process. There should be a similar one within government.

The AAR deals with four questions:

- what was expected to happen?

- why actually occurred?


- what went well and why?

- what can be improved and how?

The AAR reveals four factors: what was the task, why was the task important, what was the intention behind operation, and was there a clear end?

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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