Archive for October, 2010

Learning from the past

We held a small event in Liverpool last week looking to the archives to learn about the development of the state over time (see: http://www.liv.ac.uk/state-admin/).  Papers went back into Pharaonic Egypt, through the Roman period, Abbasid Baghdad, early modern Netherlands and colonial and post-colonial Africa.  At face value, it seemed that we had pulled together an odd collection of speakers but the connections were very interesting indeed.  Throughout, though, we kept making links to contemporary events.  The struggle between the local and the centre, questions of politics and power that underpin administrative systems and the tensions between different ethical codes placed one on top of the other.

Bringing the discussion up to date, our final speakers issued almost a rallying cry for bureaucracy, not as caricatured but as a bulwark against worse.  Professor Michael Moss from Glasgow highlighted the role of records and of archives not as an unnecessary administrative burden but as the cornerstone to good decision making, organisational memory and justice.  Professor Paul du Gay from Copenhagen revisited Weber’s ideas of bureaucracy, reminding us that the bureau ethos is concerned with excluding personal prejudices and enthusiasms from the conduct of official roles as a fundamental underpinning of modern democrtatic states.

Challenging stuff when heard against the backdrop of cuts, of efficiencies and of turmoil in the public services.

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Smoke and mirrors?

Osborne’s performance yesterday was, as one would expect, a polished one.  The detail was thin, but the message was that they had managed to spread the pain etc.  But the detailed analysis will follow from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (http://www.ifs.org.uk/) among others.

However, some of the politics is quite interesting.  People in the public sector seem to be breathing a little easier today.  It is not as bad as they feared.  The police will be cut by 16% over the five year period, which is an improvement on 25%.  Local government has been appeased by the £2bn for social care.  Whitehall appears to have taken a bigger cut, offering £6bn in administrative savings as against the anticipated £3bn.  So the frontline might think the picture is rosier than the worst case scenarios being talked about a matter of days ago.

But then there is the worry that we only have the good headlines at the moment.   Maps and details showing the geographical impacts emphasise the new investments in each region.  Roads, bridges, tunnels.  But where is the analysis of the spread of the 490,000 public sector jobs that the government predict will be lost in the next four years?  (And is it a coincidence that this is less than half a million?  Is that somehow easier to swallow?)

And managing to arrive at a headline figure of 19% cuts in public service budgets (as opposed to the 20% he claimed Labour proposed) was good knockabout stuff.  Leaving aside whether we can trust the figures, the people paying to keep public sector workers in jobs appear to be their clients, and particularly welfare recipients.   Can we really justify spreading the pain in this manner?  What will be the consequences?  In particular, changes to Housing Benefit and to the support for the social housing sector could combine to create an increasing problem of homelessness.  Is this a saving?  An efficiency?

As the detail begins to become clear and some of the last minute deals and juggles begin to come together, the anomalies will also emerge.  We have already seen examples of poorly thought out polices on child benefit etc.  What more unpleasant surprises are hidden in this spending review?

Benefit fraud, muggers and defence expenditure

Osborne appears to be very exercised by ‘benefit cheats’.  He has likened them to muggers, presenting the image not just of theft, but of theft from an individual in a violent/intimidating situation.  Images of terrified little old ladies, sheltering in their houses for fear of going out spring to mind.  To combat this dreadful spectacle, we will see more staff chasing benefit cheats and targeted drives in hot spot areas!

Meanwhile Jonathan Baume, head of the First Division Association representing senior civil servants, has suggested that the deficit could be paid off by recruiting more civil servants to work at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs gathering money from wealthy tax dodgers.  He doesn’t mention violence…  Good to see that Sir Humphrey is alive and well – the way to cut spending is to recruit more civil servants!

But the real muggers get away scot free.  The Armed Forces have mugged the entire country, threatening us with an angry Hilary Clinton, a renewed threat from Al Qaida and the prospect of being unable to defend remote islands scattered throughout the world.

But we are to believe that none of the spending decisions to be announced this week are political or ideological.  They are forced upon an unwilling coalition government….

Green or naive?

The much anticipated, at least by some, efficiency review reported yesterday (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/newsroom/news_releases/2010/101011-green.aspx).  Insubstantial summarises both the feel and the content.  It serves to illustrate the sense that the public sector is ripe for a good kicking on the thinnest of evidence.  I am not saying there is not waste and inefficiency in the public sector, but we do need to understand what is going on and not simply hurl mud and abuse.  And some of the tone of the report is intemperate, to be polite.

As to the content, we have a number of cases that suggest there are variations in the cost of items from one department to the next.  The solution?  Centralise everything.  But we have been here before and, in Liverpool, we are there now in some respects (see https://liverpoolmpa.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/murkyside/) with unfortunate consequences.  The diseconomies of scale and the hostage to fortune status acquired with large national contracts is a major problem.  Why would we want a central purchasing function for catering?  Why would we not allow for contracts, competitively awarded, with local suppliers?  Or is the review suggesting that the market doesn’t deliver effective competition?

One consequence that seems to have escaped attention is what bulk central contracts will mean for the market place.  Are we now to undermine small businesses as a matter of policy?  Certainly, the suggestion that the public sector pay its bills at the last minute and not in a timely fashion suggests that.

Perhaps it is a little easier in the retail sector?  Together with intemperate language, it all feels a bit dated, ill-informed and comic – I am sure there is a Yes Minister script in there somewhere?  However, it puts me in mind of CJ, Reggie Perrin’s old boss, dispensing his pearls of wisdom.  I didn’t get where I am today by wasting money…….

Big Society, petty ideas

One thing does now begin to emerge clearly from the Tory conference.  The Big Society is, we are now told, not a fig leaf to cover up cuts.  Rather, it is a grand idea, a big plan to transform society over a period of time.  And at the heart of the big idea is that the state should be smaller.  So we can forget all of the hypocritical nonsense about the cuts being forced on the coalition.  This is the real fig leaf, concealing the fact that Cameron and Osborne, to name but two, are ideologically committed to reducing the size of the state come what may.

If there were any doubt about the caring, Big Society image that we are being presented with, Jeremy Hunt, the culture minister, has rediscovered the undeserving poor: families having lots of children at the state’s expense.  This is more crass than the misunderstanding of the nature of child benefit revealed earlier this week – it cannot work in so simple a fashion as to cap benefits.

It is the same Tory ideas, full of petty prejudices that pander to the worst instincts.

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

I am not sure what we are to make of the Kitchener style appeal yesterday from Cameron: your country needs you!  Who is being called up to do what?  It is a puzzle.

Is the big society something like a conscript army?  Are they to be sent to the slaughter in the trenches?  And the enemy?  Are public sector workers now the Hun?  Strange metaphors emerge all round.

Spreading the pain

Over the weekend, we heard a good deal of talk about radical reforms planned for the social security system.  No longer would there be umpteen benefits, each with a separate application process, different rules etc.  One, simplified system would encompass all circumstances.

Let us leave aside the suspicion that this ultra-rational, rule-bound and (dare I say it) bureaucratic approach to defining people, their lives and their entitlements to assistance would not work.  Instead, notice the stink caused by an apparently minor change to Child Benefit, a relatively small cul-de-sac in social security terms.  Cutting benefits to those families paying higher tax rates seems a no brainer.  Yet the very point of Child Benefit is that it is, for some women, their only source of income independent of their husbands.  To plan to remove it without understanding this and the likely reaction is a pretty basic error.  So, once again, we hear the Tories revising policies within minutes of their first announcement.

But what of the politics of all this?  The cut to Child Benefit looked like a political winner.  A very public example of the way the middle classes were sharing in the pain of retrenchment.  But they are resisting and they have political clout.  The police are resisting by offering up cuts to frontline services as the only way to meet the reductions in budget demanded.  The Ministry of Defence complain that cuts would undermine national security while we are at war.

Who is left to carry the burden of cuts?  Those who are really dependent on the state’s support.  Pensioners and other welfare recipients, those in long term care…  Where is their voice trumpeting doom and resisting these cuts?  And as the axe begins to fall on only those who can’t fight back, how long will the coalition hold?