Lord Butler was again publicly commenting on cabinet government yesterday. He was giving evidence before the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee. In particular, he commented upon sofa government and the declining place of collective Cabinet decision making in recent years. But he also discussed the tendency to reorganise Whitehall without any lengthy deliberation – the most recent example being the Home Office (see the earlier blog). As always, he had interesting things to say. But there is always a suspicion of the self-serving civil servant about his observations. Things were better in the old days, when the civil servant was more respected and processes rigorously observed etc. I am always suspicious of suggestions that there was some golden era to which we might look for guidance and inspiration.
Highlights of what he had to say can be heard through last night’s edition of Today in Parliament (listen again at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/3081534.stm). The transcript of the evidence will be available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmpubadm.htm in the near future.
Published April 19, 2007
Politics and Policy
For at least the last ten years, reform of the legislation surrounding mental health services has been under discussion. A number of Bills have been proposed and put before Parliament only to provoke a hostile reaction. We have another proposal before Parliament at the moment and more hostility.
Initially, in the early days of the New Labout government, it appeared that reforms would be liberal and informed by the need to reflect the shift to care in the community in the form that legislation took. It would, for instance, strengthen the duty to provide care etc. But to illustrate how fragile are the minds of ministers, one incident changed everything.
The double murder of Lin and Megan Russell occurred and a man, Michael Stone, was found guilty of the crime in 1998. It appears that he had an untreatable Severe Personality Disorder. Since he could not be treated, he was not in a secure mental health hospital. This one incident changed the tone of the debate. Now it became dominated by concerns about public safety rather than treatment. Subsequent Bills have all sought to grant powers to the state to detain people even when they can not be treated and before they have committed any offence.
There are two things to note here. First, it is not clear what a Severe Personality Disorder is and how they can be identified. Second, Michael Stone was convicted largely on the testimony of one man, a fellow prisoner, who said that Michael Stone had confessed to the crime while in prison on remand. The prisoner concerned since appears to have received a shorter sentence. The case is currently before the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of wrongful convictions in this country will recognise this case as fitting into a familiar pattern.
So has a debate on reform has become highjacked by a red herring? I would argue it has.
Aside from amusement, a couple of things strike me about Wolfowitz’s current predicament. At face value, and as presented in the media, it is about double standards. He does not follow the strict standards he and his officials require of developing countries. And there is something to that. But it seems to me that his desire to move his partner out of the World Bank in the way he did was in response to a perceived potential conflict of interest were she to stay at the World Bank.
The management of potential conflicts of interest has been central to public administration reform since the mid-nineteenth century. Bureaucracy has at its very heart the separation of interests – no official will have anything to gain personally or indirectly from any act or decision taken as a public official. Official codes enforced this, sometimes to surprising degrees. At one time (and, for all I know, still to this day), it was not acceptable to have a relationship with someone in the same social security office because of the potential for collusion in defrauding the government.
Such rigorous separation, it has been suggested, has been undermined by public management reforms since the 1980s. Instead of clear rules, we now have codes of conduct and ethics that are more open to interpretation. And we have a more sceptical public and a cynical media that will read the worst into every situation.
So why is this of interest? Aside from the double standards, the current situation seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction on the part of Wolfowitz to the potential for bad publicity. Moving his partner removed the potential for bad publicity. But most organisations have to be able to handle conflicts of interest without removing staff. There are standard ways of doing this – declaraing conflicts openly, excluding staff from certain decsions or discussions etc. Handled clearly and consciously, there need be no problem. In this modern day and age, where we talk of learning organisations etc, we are all expected to be reflective practitioners. Inherent in such an idea is that we are able to critically appraise our own actions and biases in order to manage our personal and professional conduct. Do we still have to move partners off to some other job?