Saturday, December 01, 2007

Competence in politics

The public are clearly rather unimpressed by HM Government (I doubt she's very impressed either).

The Telegraph have focussed on a perception of 'incompetence' as the main explanation of the Government's woes. Chris Dillow probably disagrees. He thinks competence is a political non-question as the opposition can't claim with seriousness that they will be more competent. In a sense he is right, no one could 'manage' an organisation like the NHS. For that reason there is little to be said for the poll question "A test of any Government is whether it is good at management: whether or not it provides the country with competent day-to-day administration. How would you rate the present Government's performance as managers in connection with each of the following?"

This question is either entirely meaningless, because no one can credibly claim that they can offer competent day-to-day management of organisations as dysfunctional as your average government department, or substantively meaningless as, while people might shift from party to party seeking elusive 'competence', every government will steadily prove itself 'incompetent' over time. They will slowly exhaust the public's patience.

The proper question we should be hoping people will ask is not "which party is more competent" but instead "which party will stop making ordinary people pay for their own hubris in imagining they can run politically managed services competently". On this measure I think there is some difference between the parties but Chris is entirely right that it isn't a lot.

The Telegraph asked another question: "Which of these statements comes closer to your view? Although it has had a fair amount of bad luck recently the present Government is basically competent and efficient. Or, the present Government is neither competent nor efficient: to put it bluntly, it couldn't 'run a whelk stall'." This opens our analysis up to a broader understanding of competence. I think there is another way of understanding competence and incompetence that is, perhaps, more enduringly relevant.

I think that competence in government isn't necessarily about managing, or mismanaging, anything. It can be understood as a purely policy phenomena. I would call someone incompetent if they make a policy decision that led to problems that could easily have been foreseen but that took them unawares (expected problems aren't incompetence, more often they are trade-offs). You can see this kind of incompetence in both of the major administrative scandals that are engulfing the Government. The tripartite structure's weakness in the face of serious pressure and the merging of HMRC combined with complicated tax credits and shortages of resources leading to administrative chaos and data protection failures.

I think that this is a key part of how the public understands political competence and incompetence. It essentially recasts competence as a simple question: how cautious is a politician of the possibility that their policies will have unintended consequences?

That seems relevant for even the least managerialist Government. The next thing that needs to be thought about is how a Government or opposition can make themselves more competent. An answer to this question is tricky but I think that subjecting their policies to a more severe 'trial by fire' within their party and movement would be crucial.

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

Clearly, Matthew, you have no knowledge of best practice in management or of the legal and policy constraints put on organisations that do not have Crown Immunity. In matters that are broadly classified as public administration (and sadly the NHS seems to have slid into that area from govt’s point of view), government does not use its own policies on quality and legal compliance (Information Assurance being one that is very relevant to public admin), does not use competence in linking from policy to delivery as a vital factor in very many appointments, does not provide for process manuals and training and annual appraisals and… Policy is divorced from management is divorced from technical matters. Changes in procurement methods have made it virtually impossible for a middle manager to make personal arrangements to obtain paid for advice from competent people who are prepared to tell all of the truth. There really is a meltdown that need not have happened, and there are civil servants who have been waiting (in vain, it seems) for the change at the top to bring in a new regime.