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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Democratic Discontents


Warning! This is a long post!
Questions about the capacity of government in general and the political system in particular has been prominent recently on the blog. Three years ago, Gerry Stoker published a book which tried to address this issue - summary of argument here. British government is one of the most studied in the world. For a relatively small country, its combination of history, empire, flexible constitution, liberal politics and (global) language has given its outpourings about the nature and effects of its various political and administrative structures and processes a global impact.

And yet I am struck with the absence of realistic and critical studies of the efficacy of the British governance arrangements at this point in the 21st Century. I have thought long and hard – and can produce only four analyses which might be read with benefit by the concerned and perplexed in that country. Two are 10 years old – the other two 5 years old.
We have, of course, countless academic studies of the operation of the British Parliament, of political parties, of voting systems, of local government, of devolved arrangements, of the civil service, of public management (whether Ministries, core exectuve, agencies), of the Prime Minister’s Office, of the European dimension etc – and a fair number of these are reasonably up-to-date. But most of it is written for undergraduates – or for other academic specialists who focus on one small part of the complex jigsaw. There is so very little which actually tries to integrate all this and give a convincing answer to the increasing number of citizens who feel (like Craig Murray recently) that there is no longer any point in voting; that politicians are either corrupt or hopelessly boxed in by global finance and corporate interests.
I used the epithet “realistic” above in order to distinguish the older studies which painted a rather ideal picture of the formalities of the system (what the 19th century Walter Bagehot called the “dignified”parts) from the more rounded studies of the “hidden”(Bagehot), informal processes which were encouraged by the seminal 1970s book about the British budget process – The Private government of public money by the outsiders Heclo and Wildavsky.
A “Critical” study or analysis is a more complex term – since the word can mean “carping” to the man in the street or textual deconstruction to an academic. When I use the phrase critical study (as Humpty Dumpty might have said) I mean one which tries not only to describe a system but to assess how well it works (begging the obvious question - For whom?!) Despite the knowledge which academics in political science, sociology or public management can bring to the subject, several major factors seem to conspire to prevent social scientists from making any critical contribution to our understanding of the health of the governance system.
First is the strength of academic specialisation - which has discouraged and continues to discourage the sort of inter-disciplinary approach needed to explore the question of the capacity of a governance system. Then there is the aloofness of the academic tradition which makes it difficult for specialists to engage in critiques which might be seen as too political. Not, however, that this prevented people like Peter Self from lambasting the nonsenses of market thinking in government in the 1980s. And this blog has already mentioned the powerful critique of the effect of commodification on some public services carried out by Colin Leys in Market-driven Politics (2003) and by Alysson Pollok in NHS plc (2004).
Rod Rhodes is a more typical example – a leading public administration academic who invented the phrase “hollowed-out executive” to describe the loss of government functions in the last 30 years - but who chose to keep his critique incestuous both in the language and outlets he used. He played a major role in developing the “network” understanding of government – but then allowed anthropological and phenomenological assumptions to overwhelm him.
The blandishments of consultancy are a potential counter pressure to this tradition – which gets a small minority of academics too engaged with peripheral issues which so excite civil servants and Ministers.

A final factor explaining the lack of academic contribution to the understanding of the nature of our current democratic system is the contempt in which academics who write for (and become popular with) the wider public are held in the academic community - and the damage which is therefore done to one’s academic career if one chooses that path. I remember how the charismatic historian AJP Tayor was treated. And it’s interesting that Zygmunt Baumann began to write his books only after he retired from academia. Major developments in public management have, of course, encouraged academics like Norman Flynn to present and assess them for a wider public. And the same has happened in the field of constitutional theory – eg Anthony King’s The British Constitution (2007). But the first is a bit long on descriptions and the second on historical figures. And both are very partial pictures of the governance system.

This is getting to be a long post – so we need to be clear why it is important to have a systematic, up-to-date and plausible statement about how (well) our governance arrangements (or architecture) work. First as a check (or benchmark) for the myriad iniatives which governments have inflicted at large cost on an increasingly confused public and public servants. This is widely accepted as a major problem – the new Prime Minister, for example, had promised not to inflict any more changes on the health service – and yet, within a few weeks, he was making plans to introduce one of the biggest organisational upheavals ever seen.
But a second, even more powerful reason why a critical study is needed is that the British public no longer feels that it is worth engaging in democratic politics. “They are all the same – promising one thing, doing another – looking after themselves”. In the 1970s some academics helped pave the way for the neo-liberal revolution by demonstrating in addition (in the new field of implementation studies) that the machinery of bureaucracy made it very difficult to implement political decisions; the popular phrase was “the overloaded state”. Margaret Thatcher completed the hollowing out of democracy by her infamous slogan – There is no alternative (TINA)
Consistent with the post-modernist mood,Gerry Stoker places the problem firmly within our own minds -
A propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies. I think that a substantial part of the discontent with politics is because the discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants. As a result too many citizens fail appreciate these inherent characteristics of the political process in democratic settings.
Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The political processes that are essential to steer government struggle to deliver against the lionization of individual choice in our societies. Democracy means that you can be involved in the decision but what the decision is not necessarily your choice yet you are expected to accept the decision. As a form of collective decision-making politics is, even in a democracy, a centralized form of decision-making compared to market-based alternatives.
Mass democracies face a potential crisis because of the scale of discontent surrounding the political process. Discontent comes in two main forms: disengagement from politics and frustrated activism. If the twentieth century saw the establishment of mass democracy the scale of discontent surrounding the political process in these democracies runs the risk of making these systems unsustainable in the twenty first century.
Some Journalists have made an honourable effort over the decades to give the wider public some critical overviews – starting with Anthony Sampson who famously tried to track the operations of the system over 4 decades finishing his last, angriest version only months before his death in 2004. Andrew Marr had a book in the mid 1990s on the failure and future of British democracy. So did Simon Jenkins (Accountable to None – 1996).
But it was a campaigning (rather than mainstream) journalist who produced in 2001 the most revealing and critical study Captive State - the corporate takeover of Britain which gave us the real detail, for example, behind Gordon Brown’s horrendous Private Financial Initiative (PFI) and it is therefore Monbiot’s book which is my first nomination – despite being now 10 years old and concentrating its attention on only part of the picture (the political-business interface). Part of the critique, of course, of our governance arrangements is how the corporate ownership of the media has muzzled the critical journalistic voice – Will Hutton is very eloquent about that in his latest book.
Some politicians, of course, do produce books which advance our understanding of the whole process. I speak not of Tony Blair – and that whole self-justifying political autobiographical genre - but the writings of people such as RHS Crossman (on whose notes on Bagehot I grew up); John McIntosh (who was my tutor); Leo Abse (whose book Private Member was a marvellous psychological study of politicians); David Marquand; and, of course, the monumental diaries of Tony Benn. And New Labour had some honourable people in its ranks – who accepted that their critical or maverick approach denied them office. Chris Mullin was one - and has given us 2 wry reflections of politics and government in action. But, over 50 years, not a single title which deserves the epithet “critical”.
Tony Wright is an academic who for more than a decade operated quietly as Chairman of the prestigious Select Committee on Public Administration and helped produce a raft of critical reports on various aspects of governance operations. How retired from parliament, he has become a Professor (of Politics) and I look to him for some of the missing critique. Pity he can’t get together with George Monbiot to produce an expanded and updated version of the GB book!!
So far I’ve discussed academics, journalists and politicians. But what about the shadowy world of political advisers, Think Tanks and NGOs? As we might expect from such a concentration of putative brainpower, three of my 4 recommendations come from this stable. Political Power and democratic control – the democratic audit of the United Kingdom was commissioned by the Rowntree Trust and produced in 1999 - by Stuart Weir and David Beetham. Weir followed it up in 2009 with a short spoof constitution of the UK. These focus very much on the centralisation of power.

My third nominee for useful study of government capacity is ubiquitous (advisor) Chris Foster’s British Government in Crisis (2005)
which extends the analysis to the administrative aspects which Flynn describes but which (as befits someone who was a senior Price Waterhouse employee) fails to mention the interstices with the business world.
My final nomination is another product of a british Foundation – Rowntree again. Power to the People (2006) was the result of an independent inquiry (which in true british tradition invited evidence and organised dialogues) and can therefore reasonably be seen as a mainstream diagnosis and set of prescriptions. I would fault it only because of its basic assumption that, if the system is made more transparent, representative, decentralised and accountable, everything will be OK
After all this scribbling, then we are left with a central question – is the British problem one of political centralisation? of government overreach? A failure of the political class? Adversarial politics? Civil service incompetence? Corporate takeover? Or, as Stoker argues, misunderstanding? At one or time or another in the past 5 decades each has been proposed as the key problem - and led to frenetic initiatives. Little wonder that I am sympathetic to systems approaches or to constraints on initiatives!
So far, so parochial! A key question I would like some help on is the extent to which this concern is a British/Anglo-saxon phenomenon – or a wider European issue. I will try to say something (much briefer) about this in my next post.

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