Archive for April, 2010

Looking back to the 1970s

For a number of reasons, I have done a little bit of reading around about the experience of severe cuts in public spending in the 1970s in the US and 1980s in the UK.  In particular, a special issue of Public Administration Review from 1978 has some interesting observations on US experience drawing in part on the bankrupting of New York City.  One of the articles identified three sorts of public service leaders who might emerge in times of hardship (and in interpreting the three, I have exaggerated them for ease of discussion):

  • the figurehead – someone unable to cope who has risen when times were easy without any discernible talent or ability to lead;
  • the cut-the-fat tough guy – someone who sees their opersonal career as being advanced by a macho ability to make cuts, with little regard to the consequences; and
  • the revitalising entrepreneur – someone who makes the crisis work to achieve significant change in the fundamentals, the what and how of public services.

If we look at our current leadership and our future possibilities, how do they stack up against this?  It looks grim to me.

Where is the substance?

If the media are to be believed, this election is exciting, groundbreaking etc.  And perhaps, from their perspective, it is.  The television debates have dominated discussion and given the media a chance to talk about their favourite subject – themselves.  And we have the prospect of a hung parliament being talked up day by day and keeping political pundits talking into the small hours.

But there is no real substance to the election.  What is the ideological difference between the three?  There are some differences about the role of public spending in managing the economy, Brown arguing that cuts too soon would be damaging in a sort of Keynesian manner.  But there is not the sense that any of the three would be significantly different or would bring in some new dawn.  I just about remember 1979 and the sense that it was a big moment.  And 1997 had some of that sense too.  But 2010 seems utterly forgettable by such yardsticks.

Banking and democracy

I am not sure what to make of the current election and the rising fortunes of the Liberal Democrats.  In large part this is because I fell asleep through the big TV debate last week and can’t comment on who ‘won’.  However, I now note the increasing concerns of the financial services sector that we may have a hung parliament which, they suggest, will lead to indecision and a failure to address the public sector deficit.  This in turn will lead to terrible consequences for the financial services sector.  Democracy, it seems, is bad for business.

But then the financial services sector does like to play by its own rules.  We bail them out because they are too big to fail.  Don’t tax them because they will go offshore or elsewhere.  Now this.  Perhaps we should conclude that the city and democracy are incompatible?

Spending, efficiencies and some other (more important?) questions for the election

We have a quite depressing spectacle of politicians offering daily statements about the numbers they wish to cut from public spending.  Few of these statements are clear and virtually none of them are about efficiencies.  Both Labour and the Conservatives have offered up economies, simply stopping certain activities or functions.  So they suggest putting back the age at which we qualify for a retirement pension or removing some of the bells and whistles on public sector pension schemes.  They then also pledge to reduce bureaucracy – whatever that might mean.  None of this is about changing the relationship between inputs and outputs (i.e. efficiency).  It is all concerned with reducing inputs with little evident regard to the impact on outputs, let alone outcomes.  On a slightly different tack, the Liberal Democrats appear to be spelling out the programmes they would stop, such as the replacement for Trident or scrapping ID cards, ones they have on the whole opposed as a matter of principle.  This is fine as far as it goes.

But there are some big questions that need addressing.  For more than thrity years, we have heard politicians talk about reducing the size and scope of the state with little evident impact.  And each passing day we are met by more demands on the state’s resources (this morning we hear that prisoners are not being released early anymore for fear of public reaction should they reoffend).  The two sides (costs and services) are rarely put together to forma sensible discussion abiout what we want from collective provision and by who/where this might be done.

So, if the standard of political debate is so low, can we do soemthing to raise it?  Recently, I was asked for 5 questions I thought we should be discussing in the election campaign.  The intention was to have an alternative election debate on issues of deeper relevance than those discussed above.  I struggled with this for some weeks and have offered four:

1.       Can our socio-economic and geo-political decline be a catalyst for creating a vision for a different future?

2.       ‘Modern’ institutions (banks, governments, corporations etc.) have been found wanting.  In what different ways might we come together to achieve common purposes?

3.       Are we as self-interested as we are treated?

4.       Is ‘how’ (and, though this is perhaps a different question, ‘why’) more important than ‘who’ and ’what’?

My fifth suggestion was more flippant.  I would welcome any comment on these questions – even answers if there are any.  Or are there other questions others might want to offer up?