“You’re very severe,” said the chairman, “but multiply your severity by a thousand and it will still be as nothing compared with the severity that the authorities show toward themselves. Only a total stranger could ask such a question. Are there control agencies? There are only control agencies. Of course they aren’t meant to find errors, in the vulgar sense of that term, since no errors occur, and even if an error does occur, as in your case, who can finally say that it is an error.” From Franz Kafka, "The Castle"
People really don't like politicians. We've known this for years, it should come as no surprise to any observer. And maybe it's a problem:
The research, which explores the reasons behind the precipitous drop in voter turnout – particularly among under-30s – finds that it is anger with the political class and broken promises made by high-profile figures that most rile voters, rather than boredom with Westminster.
But for as long as I can remember people have said that politicians don't keep promises. The problem is that, in the political game the making of promises is part of the currency. This is because the nature of democracy - the election thing especially - is for that currency to be votes rather than money.
For some the issue is fundamental:
This is no recent trend but is, in my view, the outcome of many centuries of shift away from deference to collective authority towards the free choice of the individual. At one stage, parliamentary democracy was a major consequence of this shift as feudal elites in charge by virtue of force and divinity made way for democratic elites chosen by free voting individuals. Now this historic shift is swamping parliamentary democracy itself.
The strange thing is that, while we get more detached from politics (perhaps because of the "shift away from deference to collective authority"), that 'collective authority' gets more and more powerful and less and less accountable. We do not have 'feudal elites' but we do live in a world where government and its agents dominate large parts of life and interfere in the rest, mostly for some supposed 'common purpose'. The collective persists but it does so in a manner where any control or influence we have as individuals happens more by accident or good fortune rather than by design.
In the simplest of terms the management of our public services is largely unaccountable. And the reasons for this lack are many - from my near twenty year experience in local government here are a few:
- The sheer size of government - look at the NHS, at higher education or at planning and ask how it could be possible for a few ministers (mostly buried in paperwork) and an inefficient select committee of parliament to hold these departments to account?
- Resistance to change - for all that political leadership demands (and legislates for) change, the response of the bureaucracy, unions and academia is to organise the reform so as to secure the minimum possible actual change
- Professionalisation - everything must be 'professional', which means that those who aren't professionals in the given area are probably unqualified to comment and certainly unqualified to hold those professionals to account. As a result boards of professionals are used resulting in an inevitable closing of ranks.
- Secrecy and cover up - we hear every now and then about terrible things that happen in public agencies but only ever thanks to leaks and whistleblowers never through the usual processes of scrutiny or appraisal. The default position for government, for its agents and for the courts is always secrecy, always the gag.
- Centralisation, command and control - Anne Widdecombe observed how this was inevitable so long as the Minister has to go on the Today programme in response to things that go wrong. But this merely reinforces the chimera of ministerial control and prevents other forms of scrutiny working
I've resisted talking about more politically contested areas such as the role of trade unions, the impact of contracting and outsourcing and the role of the media in sustaining the myth of government's accountability. These few examples are not addressed by well-meaning attempts to improve public accountability, for example the apple pie and motherhood that is "the Nolan Principles", the creation of statutory officer positions in local government or the new Health & Wellbeing Boards (with a completely damaged and dysfunctional governance system imposed by an ignorant central government bureaucracy).
Public services in the UK are only accountable by happy and occasional accident - the conscientious local manager, the especially honest council leader or the whistle-blowing doctor - but in the main the way in which essential services are planned and managed is not accountable to the public who pay the bills.
Far too often as citizens we find ourselves waiting on the often arbitrary, certainly value-judged decisions of bureaucratic managers. The planning decision so we can open our cafe, a choice as to what care or treatment grandma will receive or some or other seemingly random ban, restriction or injunction imposed with no chance for challenge by some public official - we are powerless to stop this, we might through the efforts of a local councillor or the anger of a lawyer get the system bent enough to allow us to do our innocent business, but mostly we just bow our heads and mutter "jobsworth" before moving on.
And we blame the politicians. We blame them for promising accountability where there is none (nor hope of any) and then failing to deliver. We blame them for the breaking public systems, the uncaring public officials and the lousy results at our children's schools.
And the politicians promise to fix it all. The problem is that we can't, we're not allowed to.