A Busted Flush in the House of Cards

I’ve spent all of my 35 year working life in and around government trying to make it work – by which I mean doing something that genuinely improves our lives. At some point the cold realization dawned on me that I was largely wasting my time. With this light bulb switched on, my personal political preferences and indeed prejudices receded into a darkened corner.

After all, who doesn’t want a really good health service, sound and stimulating schools, comfortable trains that run on time, a stable economy, fair pensions, fast internet, companies that don’t trap us into buying their overpriced products, and a straight banking system? Anyone?

Why, then I wondered – I’m inclined to wonder – do we have a system of government that doesn’t produce these things?

Well, if you try driving an old banger of a car, then it doesn’t matter how good a driver you are, your chances of reaching your destination are low. You might look round for a different type of driver in the hope that this will get you there – ‘authentic’ leaders (depending on your political persuasion, think Johnson, Farage, Corbyn, or Trump) are understandably being preferred to yet another machine politician – but the car is still an old banger. Our system of government is the old banger and it will never get there. We need a new vehicle.

I used to be active in politics as a party modernizer, government adviser, and think tank author, until I made the simple observation that the NHS has been in a permanent state of ‘reform’ for the last 30 years by both major parties, schools similarly with the nation’s children used as guinea pigs for the latest ideological wheeze, and the pensions system remains grossly unfair. If it’s taken this long for these issues to be sorted and still they remain unsorted then there is something fundamentally wrong with the sorting process. And just think of all the taxes to pay for this to-ing and fro-ing to no effect.

As each political party promises a new dawn, gets elected, does some useful stuff in its early days, then finds it’s hard/nigh on impossible to really fix anything substantive, retreats into making announcements that will never happen, retreats further into staying in power for its own sake, and is belatedly put out of its misery by the other lot getting elected, what follows? The whole cycle repeats itself.

The civil service ducks and dives to avoid any responsibility for this woefully ineffectual merry go round, the House of Lords slaps itself on the back when it occasionally rejects a piece of flawed legislation and retires with a glow to the tea room unable to reflect on its part in systemic failure, the National Audit Office does what is has always done refusing to adapt to address this huge waste, whilst a few independent minds in the House of Commons try to improve scrutiny but can only make progress at a snail’s pace. The judiciary continues with its traditional approach to the application of the law without reference to its results.

Consider:

  1. Why are governments allowed to come up with any old policies that take their fancy without checking whether any of them will actually work? Surely, before embarking on major change any decent system would demand that the policies intended to do this have been carefully aimed and their delivery programme worked out? Not in our system.
  2. Once these policies are enacted why are politicians free to self-score their results by selecting, massaging and rhetorically spinning statistics to ‘prove’ they are right? I tried to persuade the previous Comptroller and Auditor General over a decade ago of the need and opportunity for the National Audit Office to develop its role in checking a government’s work, but to no avail. People inside systems rarely are able to see their faults, or have the incentive to change – the status quo is so so comfortable.
  3. Why do preferential lobbies like big companies so often get their way at our expense? There are supposed to be checks and balances in any quality system of government – but no-one is checking these lobbies.
  4. Why does every party that comes to power promise to clean up the sleaze of its predecessor, only to be just as sleazy? Here’s a clue – old bangers have smelly exhausts.
  5. Why do we feel disenfranchised, disillusioned, disenchanted and several other disses besides?

The decline of government performance and connection with the public is not an act of god, it has nothing to do with there being a monarchy. It’s because there’s this thing, this entity called a system of government that has never ever been designed for its modern remit. Hundreds of years ago these systems – here, in the US, France, and in most countries – were designed for some things we now take for granted – the rule of law, human rights, and representative democracy. That’s it broadly. But the task of governments has expanded seismically since then. Now they spend around 40% of a countries’ money – then, other than for wars, nearer 0%. Governments are expected to solve most problems – then social ills, education, health were left to the individual to sink or swim. Today’s governments have to contend with the power of big companies, global finance, express technological change, and news media empires with their own agendas. Then, none of this.

Imagine that the original house (of government) was built soundly, but wings have been added successively without applying a building code – the foundations of representative democracy, justice, and rights remain standing, but the rest is flawed. It leaks and disenchants. The consequences of this laissez-faire political authority lie all around us in the form of the nonsenses that are deemed irreformable in practice or that we have to accept in the name of some apparently greater good.

Why should we expect governments to work? No current government in the world has been explicitly designed to succeed. We should marvel that organisations so out of date manage to function at all.
In some ways I feel sorry for all those that enter politics with hope and ambition, and for the public officials trying to make things function, who become bogged down in a system that cannot work without constant running repairs. But, there my sympathy ends when so few of them work out that before any lasting good can be done, a new house has to be designed.

Government really doesn’t have to be this bad. We don’t have to be overtaxed, under-served, annoyed by semi-competence, spun into resignation, and excluded from power. Contrary to what many in power would have us believe, there are all manner of ways to run governments and public services. The UK just happens to have one way.

I used to believe in politics and political parties as the answer to our ills. I used to believe government is government, a fixture except at the margin. I used to believe better democracy on its own would sort out most things. With life’s experiences come wisdom, disabusement, and self-belief. I’ve undertaken hundreds of interview – all conducted on the anonymous and confidential basis that produces most insight and truth – with ministers, lords, political advisers, MPs, researchers, managers, constitutional experts, political theorists, charity staff, actuaries, journalists, consultants, judges, civil servants, engineers and many others to analyse why governments fail and how to make them succeed.

My aim with this blog is to share this knowledge, test the solutions, and convince people of its significance. It may sound overblown or unrealistic, but world class government is entirely within our grasp. I find the whole process of investigating and redesigning systems of government exciting and full of hope. I hope you do too.

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