Archive for October, 2011

Learning from our past

Last year, we held a small event here on administrative history.  It has resulted in a special issue of a journal, the International Journal of Public Administration, with another to come.  It also led to the invitation to the United Nations – don’t ask me why.  So, could the second event maintain that momentum?  It was held at the end of last week and, I think, the answer is yes.

I have been referring to Life on Mars and the continuing echoes from the 1970s to be heard in contemporary debates.  I think we would do well to look back further for some inspiration.  That is not to say that the past was better than the present.  Not am I suggesting that there are some similar experiences to be found in our past.  Rather, I find the discussions useful in that they put some things in perspective.  The papers we heard included: a discussion of the use of clay tablets in Ur in ancient Mesopotamia; the development of the Indian Civil Service from a commercial venture through to independence; and the use of stories as advice to rulers and their senior officials.  None have direct value as sources of inspiration for those confronting the challenge of reducing costs etc.  But they do remind us that the state we now know is a recent and, in historical perspective, temporary form of rule.  Those offering alternatives, such as Brendan Barber, might do well to reflect on the fact that the welfare state is only about 60 years old (or 130 if we stretch it back to Bismarck).  Yet we tend to talk of it as if it should always exist.  “Defend the welfare state” is the often heard cry.  Instead, we might ask whether there is anything in our past that helps us think more clearly about where we are to go next?

In Place of Austerity – fire up the Quattro?

Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, spoke at the university yesterday.  He set out a ‘five point plan’ as an alternative to the coalition government’s austerity strategy.  The plan consisted of:

  • reductions in public spending over a ten-year period rather than within the life of a single parliament
  • investment in infrastructure to stimulate the economy
  • taxing the financial services industry
  • a greater role for trades unions (no surprises there?)
  • reductions in the growing inequality in pay

This is less than radical.  It looks to the continent for a corporatist model of corporate governance (workers representatives at the top table etc), stimulus packages combined with taxation.  It felt like a plea for a return to the ‘good old days’ of the 1970s?  Disappointing.

I have noted before that, in the 1970s, the left was highly critical of the welfare state and the relationships between government, the city, trades unions etc.  So why now is the radical alternative a return to a past that was unsatisfactory, even on their own terms?  Life on Mars all over again?

And one questioner asked whether he would support the forms of direct action and resistance that she believed to be brewing.  Brendan Barber’s response – we must be clear that we speak for the majority of ordinary working people.  In other words, no.

But at least he was taken to a football match afterwards…  How the other half live!!

Conflicts of Interest

A strange report, yesterday, from the Cabinet Secretary into the Liam Fox affair (see:  Leaving aside the details of the affair, the report is, at best, diplomatic.  At worst, it is unclear.  One phrase stands out.  Donations in this case ‘could be seen as giving rise to the perception of a conflict of interest’.  It seems the Cabinet Secretary is unclear what is meant by a conflict of interest.

It refers to conflicts between a public role and your private interests.  The exercise of a public office should be in the public interest alone and be free from any personal interests.  Conflicts include clear cases, such as awarding contracts to friends or relatives, owning shares in such a company etc.  But a conflict also arises when friends have privileged access to influence, or when donations are made to political or other funds.  These are conflicts of interest.  There is no question of perception.

This is not to say that, because there is a conflict, some terrible injustice or gross corruption has occurred.  A conflict exists, whether it leads to any financial gain or other advantage.  Removing or managing such conflicts is part and parcel of daily life in government at a senior level.

‘…Could be seen as giving rise to the perception of a conflict of interest’ suggests that there is no conflict of interest, just a perception.  It seems to suggest that a conflict arises when someone gains.  So the offence reported on by the Cabinet Secretary is the perception that someone gained in some way from the relationship.  But this is to misunderstand.  There was a conflict.