Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Democracy – when more is less

Well before it has launched one of Cameron’s most cherished policies – the planned move to elect police commissioners for all 41 police authorities in England and Wales – is looking like a very bad idea indeed and one that ultimately raises important questions about the practical limits of democracy.

On Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Nick Herbert, Minister for policing and criminal justice repeatedly refused to answer Evan Davis’s perfectly reasonable question about what would constitute a reasonable turnout at the elections in November and whether he would be happy with 15%, saying only that he wanted it to be as large as possible.  Well, yes of course.   Ministers are usually very happy to set targets for others but strangely reticent when it comes to setting any for themselves.  It is bad news indeed if the minister is not privately confident of hitting a measly 15% turnout.

Then there is the question of costs.  Nick Herbert was emphatic that the estimated cost of a state-funded mailshot at £25 – £35 million is too much for the government to afford at this time so candidates will NOT get one.  Earth to Whitehall; policies that are unaffordable are, err, umm, unaffordable.   Yet it’s not that spending on campaigning including mailshots isn’t allowed; earlier on the same programme Ann Barnes who is standing as an independent  in Kent explained that the population she has to reach is 1.7 million, equivalent to over 17 parliamentary constituencies and the allowable expenses in the last six weeks alone are £228,ooo.  This is on top of a £5,0000 deposit.

Cameron’s notion (also from ‘Today”) was apparently that, “Community leaders and pioneers of all sorts… [should stand]”.   In practice, it means only those with the backing of a political machine and the army of free deliverers that brings with it.  The only independents with much chance are those with serious financial backing.

Multi-millionaires are not normally ‘community leaders’ in the usual sense so who might get such backing and in return for what?  The precedent from the USA where many positions are elected that we would regard as administrative appointments – everything from county clerks to judges – is not good.  The track record is that vested interests, even criminal ones, can buy privileged access to the system.  Media magnates have a particular advantage.  Incumbents with plum jobs have to keep those who will finance their re-election happy however unsavory they might be and even if it means bending the law – or driving a coach and horses through it.  Although some voters will know what is going on there is no practical and affordable way of telling the majority, at least not in the face of organised disinformation.  And when turnouts are very low, as Nick Herbert obviously expects but won’t admit, the opportunities for buying elections are that much the greater.   If I were Murdoch I would regard this as the perfect opportunity to buy insurance against any further or future exposures.

The conclusion I draw is that democracy is not about voting as often as possible or for as many posts as possible.  Elections should be arranged and financed in such a way that there is a level playing field that gives independents (and/or minor party candidates) a reasonable chance of ejecting incumbents.  Inter alia, that means that cost must NOT be a significant factor.  And there must be an effective exchange of information and opinion independent of the candidates where their relative merits and demerits can be freely discussed.  The national media (increasingly supplemented by new media) provides this for Westminster elections but only weakly for local elections which is partly why there is so much ‘cross talk’ from national trends.  But for police commissioners?  I don’t see any suitable forum.  As for who might regard £250k or so as a good investment wealthy but public-spirited citizens would be well down my list of likely candidates; top would be power-crazed media magnates and organised crime.



Hackgate: In partial defence of the Police

The Hackgate affair has exposed some sordid goings on at the heart of the establishment with the Murdoch press, politicians and police all guilty of, at best, some very poor judgements.

As far as I am concerned News Corp richly deserves the opprobrium heaped on it.  Companies invariably reflect the values of their leadership – as the saying goes “a fish rots from the head”.  Those values have clearly been sadly lacking and the crisis in which they find themselves is simply karma.   Rupert Murdoch may be a media visionary with talent far beyond his contemporaries or he may be merely a slick operator who discovered early in his career that the way to get ahead in media was to go relentlessly down-market and to have as many politicians in his pay as possible and to terrorise the rest.

But I do have some sympathy for the position the police find themselves in.   Some of the things they investigate are clearly priorities even in a world of limited resources.  Murder is the obvious example.  But what about the grey areas?   What happens when it’s not clear that what has happened is actually a crime or where the evidence is lacking or where it is undoubtedly a crime but is too trivial to prosecute?

The answer is, of course, that someone has to make a judgement call but this doesn’t happen in a vacuum.   It must depend on what the boss thinks is/is not important – and for a senior policeman than means key politicians, people like the Mayor of London (given that this is the Met), the Prime Minister and the House of Commons generally.

Well, we know what the mayor thought about hacking; his view was unequivocally that it was “politically motivated codswallop”.  And the PM?  Well, he was having Murdoch senior round for tea, visiting with Rebekah Brooks and employing Andy Coulson despite his having left News of the World under a cloud and multiple warnings.   Rebekah Brooks told the House of Commons Media Committee in 2003 that payments had been made to the police which is illegal and they chose not to follow it up.  Only when the whole affair blew up did they sanctimoniously ask Murdoch why he hadn’t pursued it.  Presumably only the fact that he was in “humble” mode prevented them getting the same question flung back at them.

So, with the whole political establishment lined up to support News Corp even when it strayed a bit (and perhaps a lot) over the line into illegality, what can a policeman to do?   Probably not a lot is the honest answer but don’t expect the Media Committee to agree with that view.  They look pretty foolish themselves and a fall-guy is needed.

My defence of the police is, however, limited by the fact that senior officers who should have known better were far too ready to take the Murdoch shilling as columnists, to dine with editors supposedly under investigation and to be willfully blind when reviewing evidence.

The politicians should redeem themselves by breaking up the News Corp empire in Britain.


Welcome to the Westminster tractor factory

Today’s World at One on Radio 4 included a telling little insight into government thinking.

They reported that “Youth unemployment has risen to just over 20%, the highest level since records began in 1992“.  Their business reporter went on to observe that, “While there are a record number of 16-24 year olds out of work, that includes full time students looking for casual work who the government would like to exclude from the statistics“.

How convenient that would be!  Record levels of youth unemployments, if not exactly solved, at least vastly reduced by a statistical sleight of hand and all at zero cost to the taxpayer.

If only!   This is just plain dishonest; students need income just as much as anyone else.  For the next generation the need will be even greater with monster fees to fund.

But it is also problematical in a more subtle way.  As the published statistics get further and further removed from reality the government is fooling itself as well as its political opponents.   The great danger of propaganda is that you start believing it yourself and that is surely the case here.  

One of the characteristics of communist regimes was that their statistics were manufactured to hit targets handed down from on high, to prove a political point, to provide a factoid (actually a ‘fantasy-oid’) about tractor production or whatever.

A government of integrity would stop this soviet practice and return – however painfully – to honest data.

Coalition can’t see the wood for the trees

When searching for miscreants the best advice, as every detective knows, is to “follow the money”.    Observers of the political scene should also take this advice to heart, even if the results are sometimes depressingly sordid.

In the case of the government’s misbegotten plan to privatise much of the Forestry Commission’s estate in England despite massive public opposition; the money aspect is most revealing.  David Malone sets out the background and links to the financial crisis here.

Now you might think that his argument is somewhat tendentious, but it certainly fits a pattern of privatisations which long since lost sight of their original advertised purpose – to promote better management and free firms from political meddling – and morphed into crony capitalism of the worst sort.

For the economics of the sell off make no sense whatsoever from the point of view of the public purse.  Private Eye reports just how adrift from reality the government’s case is.

[The Forestry Commission] already sells off land occasionally. When it recently flogged an area of woodland for £60,000, for example, the new landowner immediately applied for funds under the English Woodland Grant Scheme to grow and cut timber and was given assistance totalling £55,0oo.

Grants for replantings are to remain so the sell off only makes sense if the government’s motivation is not advantage to the public purse, but the private advantage of wealthy supporters.

Time was that Lib Dems would have fought this sort of thing tooth and nail, now holding the (Conservative) Party line takes precedence.

It’s nauseating.

Voting fiasco – a metaphor for a dysfunctional government

The bad farce which characterised the inability to register votes at so many places round the country using a tried and trusted method is a national disgrace and embarrassment.   Britain used to rule the waves and much of the world besides; now we can’t even organise a simple election.  What must the rest of the world think of this mess?   To me this is the perfect metaphor for the dysfunctional state our government generally.

It’s not even as if the turnout was particularly high by historical standards; to the extent it was up a bit that possibility was well signposted in the days before the vote.   Moreover, with record numbers of postal votes the task on the day was that much easier even in the face of a high poll.

No doubt some will call for automation of polling but that is NOT a good idea.  Remember Florida!   Also automated systems can be hacked and who would ever know?  After George W Bush won his second term there were all sorts of rumours floating round the US about some very strange results.  At least with our traditional system it’s all out in the open so that democracy is not only done, but is seen to be done and that consideration trumps all alleged cost or time savings.    No, the difficulty is with government’s seeming inability to manage the proverbial party in a brewery and automation won’t change that.

And if government is so inept at easy things, tasks that it regularly undertakes, what hope is there for more difficult things – like, for example, digging us out of this enormous economic hole we’re in?  My experience in business tells me that when an organisation has lost the plot strategically and has lost control of its cost base then it also looses the ability to get even the simple things right.   That’s what I think is going on here and the uncomfortable truth is that unless government learns to do very much better very fast it will hamstring all and any plans we might have for recovery, irrespective of governing party. 

In short, this debacle is a canary in the government mine – a very dead canary.  We should take note.

By the way exactly what does the Electoral Commission contribute to the process?  What does it cost?  Why do we need it?

Learning from the BBC

How many senior managers does it take to run the BBC?

Apparently it’s quite a lot less, 18% less to be precise, than previously thought according to the BBC Trust which has agreed to proposals from the Executive to cut the senior management pay bill by around 25% over the next three and a half years.

Other savings will come from freezing pay and bonuses for senior management until 2010 as part of a larger plan to cut a whopping £1.7 billion from costs between now and 2013.

Wow.  18% less senior staff!  Savings of £1.7 billion.  What a veritable feeding trough this must have been in recent years; a perfect illustration of how the interests of senior staff can diverge from that of the organization and its shareholders (the public in this case). 

Actually the salary and bonus savings are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.   The primary cause of inefficiency is not too many staff and an inflated wage bill, bad as that is, but the organizational constipation they cause as they get in each other’s way.  All those staff have to do something, and when there are too many of them they invent work, creating endless and pointless meetings and paperwork, hoarding information, diffusing responsibility and playing (company) politics.   Trust me, I’ve been there, I’ve got the tee shirt.

But if the BBC is top-heavy and over-managed, what of central government?   I suspect the BBC is positively slimline by comparison.  Think about it; most long-established major industries have in turn experienced an existential crisis which has forced root and branch reform – think shipbuilding, coal, steel, motor manufacturing, telecoms and so on.   Some have failed to make the change, others have gone on to thrive (though often under foreign ownership).  The one obvious holdout, protected until now by the endless generosity of the taxpayer, is government.

Well, this party is about to end.  A country needs a government just as a large and diversified company needs a head office but it must add value and it can only do this if it is small and efficient.  If it gets too large it becomes inefficient and self-serving and subtracts value.  That sadly, is what HMG too often does.

Which is why I have always disagreed with the plan to save $20 billion from government spending.   It’s simply too small; it implies leaving the system basically unchanged and making it just a bit more cost-efficient round the edges.  For heavens sake!  If the BBC can find £1.7 billion after a few months what is the potential across government?  £200 billion is probably nearer the mark because that implies a root and branch change in the way government works.

It’s long overdue.


Lessons from London

According to the Wall Street Journal the US House of Representatives is to start posting expense reports online at the behest of Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the WSJ began publishing stories based on combing through the existing paper records.

It is not proposed that records from earlier years will be published online.  My guess is that quite a few congressmen have been reading reports from London and are keeping their fingers crossed that no-one digs into past expenses.

What a difference it would have made if Speaker Martin had opted for disclosure at an early stage.

However, it seems that the Senate still doesn’t ‘get it’ even though their expenses typically cost millions of dollars per year so there could still be fireworks from Washington.