Saturday, December 15, 2007

Review after review after review

The number of reviews the Government has been announcing has been incredible. From Ben Brogan:

"Bloomberg news reported yesterday that Gordon Brown has ordered more than 30 reviews since he took over in June. In fact, it's a lot more - at least 49 by our count, and we may find others. That's two a week."

He posits a few explanations but I don't see dithering or some attempt to rescue a mess left to him by the Blair Government. Dithering implies that eventually these reviews will decide the issue. I doubt it. I think they'll be kicked into the long grass then released quietly on a busy news day. Equally, the Brown Government is full of old faces so the idea they're discovering a raft of problems left to them from Blair's time in charge seems implausible.

These reviews are a means to stall a decision for one of two reasons:

1) Media-grabbing policymaking without the hangover. There are a lot of policies from the Blair era that created trouble for his Government as they were clearly poorly thought out but were produced to support a particular media 'event': marching offenders to cashpoints, the NPfIT. Brown can get the same media buzz but without actually needing to do anything. The policies can be quietly forgotten without the risk of them coming back as a monstrosity like the world's largest and, perhaps, most out of control IT project. To this extent the flood of reviews is a good thing if it limits the number of poor policies seeing the light of day. I could be wrong but I suspect the review Balls announced of the junior school curriculum would definitely fit in this category.

2) To stall until the heat has died down and avoid Ministerial resignations. This was the case with the party funding and data protection reviews. It is a pretty shoddy practice. The question arising from the Abrahams affair isn't what new rules and funding should be in place and Brown's attempt to make that the 'real issue' in PMQs was obviously phoney. If people are breaking the current rules enforcement, and resignations or sackings, is needed rather than new rules.

This is part of the broad "I need to stay to set things right" defence which has largely destroyed what accountability there was in Government.

In trying to run public services from central Government politicians have set themselves an impossible task. Any one person sitting at the top of a huge, Byzantine organisation like the Health Service would have, at best, a very limited idea of what was going on. Add to that the fact that most Ministers are the last people you would pick to have a shot at that impossible task. After a life spent working in politics or the unions they are expected to walk straight in and work out how to manage these huge unwieldy organisations. They have to do that within the couple of years before they, almost inevitably, get moved to another department in the game of musical chairs that is the British system of government.

All this means that Ministers, and the organisations they are responsible for, regularly fail. They're failing particularly regularly at the moment thanks to the institutional stresses of a muddled and unstable programme of reform combined with stop-go financing on a vast scale.

Brown's slow destruction of the principle of accountability shouldn't surprise us. He needs to find some way of making the endless failures of politically managed public services less critical to his Government's fortunes. However, it isn't working - the Government's ratings on competence show that. Even if it does work in certain cases people will wise up to attempts to stall their judgement.

Hopefully politicians will eventually wake up and realise that the only way to stop having to take responsibility for failures you can't control is to stop trying to control the uncontrollable. Then they might end the monopolies, centralisation and political management that cripple public services.


James Higham said...

N2 seems to definitely hold water as a reason.

Gracchi said...

I find the proliferation of reviews interesting as well as the focus on management in the civil service. I wonder whether it suggests a change in the way that Whitehall works where policy is contracted out and management stays in house.