Monday, October 18, 2010
A Fine Mess
Let me clarify - the pessimism I feel about the performance capacity of governments relates to my experience and understanding of (a) the UK system since 1968 (when I started my councillor role which was to extend for 22 years) and (b) the so-called transition countries of Europe, Caucusus and Central Asia in which I have worked and lived for the past 20 years.
I have a more open mind about the situation of the Scandinavian countries (in one of which I have briefly worked and lived); of Federal Germany and of the consenual Netherlands (although consensual Belgium and Austria have been disasters). But the UK system has become ever more centralised and adversarial in my lifetime - and these two characteristics seem to me to affect the chances of policy success in the country –
• Policies are imposed – rather than negotiated or thought through
• They are often very poorly designed (eg the poll-tax; rail privatisation; the whole Stalinist target system – with all the counterproductivities that involves)
• Ministers have a high turnover rate (Ministers of Finance excepted)
• Implementation is very poor (see agency theory)
• Morale of public servants is low (political hostility; targets; frequency and number of new initiatives; crude management)
• Changes in government lead to cancellation of programmes
Governance arrangements as a whole do not excite much interest in Britain – but issues relating to the operation of the political system (and of what is felt to be the disenfranchisement of the citizen) do. Concerns about the British political system were so great that a highly ironic report on the operation of the British system was published by Stuart Weir and Democratic Audit to coincide with the launch of the campaign. A very good blog put the campaign (and its prospects) in a useful wider context. If you go back to the diagram at the end of key paper 5 on my website, the electoral system (box 4 top left) is actually only one of 10 sub-systems which have a bearing on the operations of public policies. But (as the 2nd of my blog masthead quotes indicates) it is probably of supreme importance. Which is why the political system so rarely gets reformed (apart from local government!)
I vividly remember a book in the late 1970s (Google does not go that far back!) which looked at various policy initiatives to try to identify the preconditions for successful social policy-making (feasibility and support were 2 of them) and which could produce only a couple of succesful policy examples - one of which was the Open University (I would add the Scottish Children’s Hearing approach to juvenile justice which was introduced in 1968 and which appears still to be going strong .
I would dare to posit that there was probably a Golden Age of government capacity in the UK – not only further back in time (when the political elite were not assailed by the media, lobbies and think tanks) but also further down in space. David Marquand’s recent magisterial neglected arguments of Leopald Kohr. I appreciate the arguments of Gerry Hassan and Tom Gallagher about the potentially incestuous nature of political systems in a small country (Hassan talks about the bunker mentality) and Belgium, Iceland and Ireland have hardly surrounded themselves recently with glory – but the issue of decentralisation of power must be one of the options countries look at in our present global crisis.
China is in the news again – with its attitude to the award of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo. There are (and have been) so many courageous individuals in that country – and now even some older members of the elite are calling for an end to the restrictions of freedom of expression…. I liked the jokes which are now apparently circulating about the situation.
But apparently even the Prime Minister is censored!
As I’ve been writing this, Romanian radio has been playing some Stockhausen which has similarities to Kyrgyz nasal music!!