Saturday, 1 December 2012

The "town-hall zombies"


Matthew Parris has the knack of articulating things many of us have struggled with - this week he comments on local government. That it's done in the light of the "Rotherham Case" shouldn't blind us to the truth of what he says:

...what makes the blood boil in their immediate and instinctive reaction is the implication that human judgment can be removed from a decision-making process; that at a certain happy moment early in the 21st century, the science of local government attained a state of such perfect precision that no poor, fallible human mind was any longer required to make any actual, fallible human judgment. It became sufficient to enumerate and validate the inputs — the criteria that had to be met, the questions that had to be asked, the people who had to be informed, and the allowable reasons upon which the decision might be grounded — and the machine would then whirr, click and finally ping and, hey presto, you had your output: your decision. Should any appeal then arise, the review would consist in checking that the machine was working, and that the appropriate data had been fed into it.

It is hard to fault this analysis of the attitude of local government nor to notice that the Rotherham case is the fault of politicians not simply the mistake of local bureaucrats. It is politicians - nationally and locally - that agree the 'frameworks' and 'guidelines' for social workers (and planners, licensing officers, environmental health - indeed the entrie panoply of local government regulation). But we - and I am one of these politicians - stand by and acquiesce in the acts of 'professionals' simply because they are professionals.

"Town-hall zombies", Parris calls those administering these processes, crafting these guidelines and shambling round the dysfunctional and sub-optimal machine that is local government. The problem is that so many of my councillor colleagues - from every party and none - have been infected by the zombies and, rather than using our power to make that guidance, those regulations and frameworks serve the people, we act to defend the bureaucracy and its merchants.

But Matthew Parris is wrong about one thing. He tells us these Process People are peculiar to local government. They are not - this outlook, along with the triumph of project management over expertise, is seen throughout government and increasingly in big business too. We really should ask, as Parris does:

These, the Process People, are proving utterly impervious to the growing swirl of common sense gusting around their brick and concrete citadels. How are they to be dislodged?


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