Tuesday 17 June 2014

Why governments find it more difficult to act

Mary Dejevsky is one of the most interesting columnists on the circuit. She is the only one to see the Lib Dem contribution in government clearly. She is the only one who really gives Nick Clegg his due as one of the most intelligent operators in government.

She is also invariably right, and she was right again yesterday when she talked about the vital importance of competence in government.

It is all very well getting the economy right, as the coalition appears to have done in the short term, but they still haven’t cracked the other competence issues and they will need to if they are going to win the support they need. That kind of sums up her message.

I'm not sure that passports are the best example, though it is a potent political symbol, because no department can deal with an unexpected influx.  But she is still right.

I have written before about why the administration of modern government is so difficult these days and it goes beyond Mary Dejevsky’s diagnosis (which is that it is all about failures in outsourcing).

Part of the problem is the absolutely firm and unshakable belief in the UK government system in one simple solution to all things – which you might perhaps characterise in faith in the quick fix – when all the evidence suggests that any problem worth solving will operate on several interconnected levels at once. That explains something of Whitehall’s preference for tackling symptoms rather than causes, acting on the symbolism in the hope that it feeds through into reality. That is a cultural problem, but it is a big one.

Part two of the problem is utilitarian. New Labour in particular believed that you could somehow operate government like a vast humming computer programme. You could simply input the targets, programme the standards, press the button marked Go and the machine would do the rest. That was stymied by the failure of numbers to adequately describe the real world, and but it has added another layer of complexity to the problem of competence. A blind, bowlderised government machine doesn’t help.

Part three, and the bit that exercises me at present, is the sheer complexity of modern government. Any tweak to the system is bound to have unpredictable, unknowable knock-on side-effects which nobody intended and which – when revealed in the media – will make the minister look stupid. On balance it is often easier to do nothing.

All of these frustrate the best efforts of the most enlightened ministers daily.. They know how long and difficult it is to make anything happen. There are no levers, and those that used to exist have long since been outsourced..

Here is the fundamental problem of government and Mary Dejevsky is right. We will not trust government unless it takes risks to make things happen, but it is not set up to allow this to happen at all easily.

This is both the side-effects of the success of democracy and its greatest threat. It renders our democratic institutions vulnerable to challenge from rabble-rousers with half an idea in their heads. And that, more than anything else, that demands a solution to this conundrum.

Government has to be able to act, but it isn't set up to do so.  Nor is outsourcing an instant solution because, although businesses are set up to act, when they take over public services, they become as inflexible and bone-headed as any corporate monolith anywhere.  There lies the great problem of our times.

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