Saturday, 4 January 2014

Life in the castle: Politicians, bureaucracy and accountability

“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.



Junican said...

I am going to write this, even though it might be 'junk science'.

There are huge industries. Let us imagine an enormous bank. That bank would be organised for a single purpose - profit. Its systems would be organised to produce the desired profit.
Now think of 'government'. It seems to me that 'government' is the reverse of industry. Its objective is to produce - loss.

Does that sound silly? Perhaps. But think again.

If I am right, then the skill in government would be to keep 'the loss' under control. That translates into keeping costs down to a minimum. That means being very, very efficient and actively shrinking your 'business'.

The question now is, "To what extent is the conservative party willing or able to comply with that simple necessity?" If I might give one example.
The WHO has built a massive edifice of Tobacco Control, and 'noncommunicable diseases' in general. I have been investigating and the costs are enormous. The EU healthists are directly connected to the UN, and so is our UK 'branch' of tobacco control.

See here:

Why are taxpayers funding ANY of this organisation's objectives? Just stop the funding and let Bloomberg and Gates do it.

As you know, ordinary people, from time to time, make major purchases, like their home, car, whatever. They pay for those purchases either by saving or borrowing, and then use their income to replace the savings or repay the borrowings.
For decades, government, despite its propaganda, has been doing the exact opposite. It has been spending on CONSUMPTION (including funding the WHO and such) and creating solid edifices of DEBT.

Anonymous said...

The growing disenchantment with politics stems from the fact that all our major parties are composites - in any one party, you find some policies with which you firmly disagree, hence an unwillingness to support any party at all. To vote for the policies you like, you have to appear to support some policies you hate.

Ultimately, the only answer is to move to a Swiss-style referendum approach, where individual policies are separated from any party manifesto, allowing the electorate's opinion to hold sway.

This will be highly unopoular with the party machines, but it is the only way to staunch the voters' frustration and re-invigorate interest in the political process.

Tom said...

It's not like all the misbehaviour we're witnessing has gone unnoticed by some people inside our establishment. They made The Civil Servant's Code of Conduct legally binding in The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The Code covers pretty much all the points you have raised...

Maybe it's of use - maybe it ain't - there has yet to be a prosecution - even though there is a target rich environment of official misbehaviour.

Maybe it's just worthless unenforceable output from the regulatory machine destined to accumulate mould in the archives without ever being used -maybe not.