Getting the politics right for reform

Matthew Taylor, former No 10 policy wonk, has an interesting article on his blog about public service reform. He rightly says that finances over the next few years are both a huge challenge to public services, but also an opportunity to make real change happen. That won’t come about, he says, without a change in the national political culture, starting from the top:

There are far too many ministers, all of whom think it is their job to generate initiatives; ideas are allowed to be developed and launched without any reference to those at the front line; change management and the time it takes is not treated seriously; there is complete lack of realism about how far the centre’s intended messages actually reach; civil servants fail to see or warn (or be allowed to warn) their masters that every new target or piece of guidance had an adverse impact on all these existing targets and instructions (not to mention local morale).

No disrespect to Matthew, but this is a very technocratic argument. The idea that there should be fewer ministers is perhaps not a bad one – though it needs to happen alongside a more powerful and independent Commons and a reformed Lords. No matter how many Ministers there are, however, they will still be put on a spot on the Today programme and asked to make a commitment that “[bad thing] will never be allowed to happen again.”

There are certainly real opportunities for reform in the fiscal squeeze that’s ahead. The barrier to transformation, though, is not hyperactive Ministers who don’t let technocrats manage, it’s an immature political dialogue in which the media and the public create and feed off outrage and disgust, while politicians sit on top of the bureaucracy and try to placate the beast.

This is a local government problem as much as a national government one. Anyone who has seen parents protesting about school places or attended a controversial meeting of the planning committee will understand that.

If the spending cuts to come are not to create more disaffection and anger, they can’t be done behind closed doors. They need to be discussed openly, in public, and real choices have to be set out clearly, not decided and then ‘consulted upon’.

People should have the chance to see the books, and have intermediaries more trusted than journalists to explain to them what the choices are. They then need to be able to express an opinion more nuanced than ‘I want everything for free’.

Creating the circumstances in which this can happen is part of a widening and deepening of active citizenship that is essential if the political world is to catch up with what today’s citizens expect.

I’m not so naive as to think that this level of openness will appear in the twelve months before a general election, although it would be nice to think that it could. Afterwards, though, if Labour or the Conservatives are really serious about localism and democratic reform, a big conversation, not a Big Conversation, needs to be created.

The disenfranchisement of the willingly unwired

Ofcom logoReading this post – as good a round-up of the progress and the opportunities I’ve seen made me think about the OfCOM research, published earlier this week that indicated that 43% of ‘unwired adults’ are happy to stay that way.

There’s a parallel, I believe, with the push to create new participatory spaces. Like broadband, the assumption that we all want it, will all invest in working out how to use it, to game it, to let it become another one of the weapons in the armoury that we use to take on the world – is an unexamined assumption.

And then think where that leaves those people? Many of the ‘wired adults’ are using online tools without ever taking an interest in politics, democracy, or the participative options that exist to tackle the issues around them.

Shopping, chatting, watching missed TV programmes, gambling and other activities all trump ‘engagement’. Others (such as Kevin, for instance) can quantify just how little most people want to be oppressed by demands to engage, to participate, and to have your say, but the one conclusion that can safely be reached is this: Those who lionise the notion of active citizenship, and promote a more participatory politics massively over-estimate the appetite for it.

Have those ‘unwired’ adults ever told you that they’re happy to let the wired-up interfering busy-body do-gooders have a disproportionatly strong voice in the big decisions that effect their lives? I ask because I’ve never seen any evidence that such consent has been given.

And if it hasn’t, why is so much energy being put into encouraging people to participate in decision-making processes that effect us all?

Politicians as jurors?

The BBC website has a nice post up about how the question of politicians being ‘in touch’ isn’t a straightforward one. It sort-of reprises a few points that I made in this post here a while ago – that no-body really agrees with anyone else about very much, and that – under such circumstances, politicians are in a bit of a cleft stick. On of my ongoing questions here is to ask what kind of politicians do we actually want? A few weeks ago, I asked if we really want paragons of virtue? And does a private personal wealth allow people the luxury of looking virtuous that their poorer rivals can’t benefit from?

The Jury Team

My next question is this:

Do we want politicians to behave like jurors?

We may actually have an answer to this question within the next year or so. I say this because ‘The Jury Team‘ are hoping to field candidates at the next election and they have a rather nice website up here. They are plainly enjoying the way that MPs are being exposed for their venality, or – let’s face it – their downright dishonesty in recent weeks. Continue reading

Populist policing and speedy decisions

Apologies for the light posting this week. I’ve been in Northern Ireland where I met someone who was studying criminology. Her key concern was the question of local control of policing and populism: Would devolved policing result in a deterioration into populism.

Northern Ireland is an interesting case in point, given the historic divides. Unionists, with some spectacular exceptions, have often been close to the model of the deferential working class found elsewhere in the UK. Republicans, on the other hand, have a … er … history … of scepticism about the authority of state justice.<<< understatement of the year!

How far would Northern Ireland provide a good model for looking at the general question of devolved policing?

All of this is a prelude to a link to this post on the LGIU blog: Localise criminal justice now. And this brilliant one about waste and decentralisation

The latter link has some interesting implications: How far is the current centralised model of policing (lots of form filling, procedures and risk aversion) predicated on the need to keep highly paid managers apprised of the information that they need to make the right decisions, and to ensure that when the wrong ones are made, that the same managers aren’t blamed?.

The other post I’ve seen that is worth a look is this one about the speed of decision-making. It raises three questions:

  1. Has the active internet forced the speed of decisions up?
  2. Are those decisions better as a result?
  3. Is there a role that public bodies could be playing to deal with this issue?

Participatory budgeting – radio programme

Here’s a radio programme about participatory budgeting in the UK. I’m not sure where it went out first (Tiago Peixoto pointed me towards it via Facebook).

It’s quite short and worth listening to just for the note of joy in a council officer’s voice when she says that people were asking for council tax increases once they had their demands pushed back on them.

Mixed Ink

The wemedia pitch it competition took place in Miami, February 2009

The wemedia pitch it competition took place in Miami, February 2009

I want to tell you about Mixed Ink – a really good concept in collaborative authoring that I encountered on my travels a few weeks ago.

I was in Miami (‘ark at me!), touting a democracy project that I’ve been nurturing for years.

The conference I was at was designed to showcase bright ideas in the use of new media tools. With a high level of involvement from indie journalists, a lot of new commercial and social-enterprise spaces were being keenly eyed.

The emerging spaces that are being created as the mainstream media adjusts to the perfect storm that it thinks it faces over the next few years were of particular interest to all.

My project didn’t win the prize sadly (there were two prizes and 18 candidates). The winners were See Click Fix (a variation on the UK’s excellent Fix My Street) and The Extraordinaires. Both good projects – the latter is just soooooo, like, kick-ass (as we say in America) it’s eye-watering. Do have a look.

But the project that interested my slightly wonky head the most was Mixed Ink. I had a few talks while I was there with the founder, Dave Stern and the idea has passed all the relevant tests for me. More to the point, I like it a lot more now I’ve thought it through. I’d love to try it here – and I think it would have a more positive impact here than in the US. Continue reading

Home PgDn

Time for a look at Chapter three of the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This chapter is the section of the green paper that focuses on democracy, so there’s a lot to talk about. The chapter says that a Conservative Government would:

  • provide citizens in all our large cities with the opportunity to choose whether to have an elected mayor;
  • give people the power to instigate referendums on local issues;
  • make the police accountable to the people they serve through directly elected commissioners, crime maps and
    quarterly beat meetings;

  • put the power to judge the behaviour of councillors back in the hands of their citizens by abolishing the Standards
    Board, and repeal the rules that prevent councillors representing their constituents’ views on local issues;

  • permit local authorities to devolve unlimited funding to ward councillors; and
  • let local people choose the organisational structures of their local councils.

Directly elected police commissioners deserves a fuller treatment elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it here. I’d only say that the obvious problem is one of competing mandates. Standards Board issues are democratic, in the sense that elected politicians should not be subject to disbarment by unelected civil servants – leaving such issues to the judicial system is by far the better approach.

Devolution of some money to ward level – as a power not a duty – isn’t a bad idea in itself, but the green paper suggests that money will be parcelled out to councillors directly. Participatory budgeting may be relatively untried, but an opportunity to extend it has been missed here. Participatory budgeting also provides a check on process: if individual councillors have sole responsibility for spending, the possibility of ward-level slush funds can’t be ruled out.

Allowing referendums on council governance structures might be a good idea if people knew or cared what their council governance structure was. More likely to be used is the alternative proposal to allow changes based on manifesto commitments. One problem in the proposals is that any referendum would take place at the same time as local government elections. This hasn’t been thought through. If Blanktown Council holds a referendum on whether to create an elected mayor, it has to be before the election cycle or there could be a four-year wait until the proposal is implemented. Far better to have the referendum held on election day in the year before the change comes in.

It’s also not clear what would happen to those places where directly elected mayors already exist. Would a council elected on a manifesto of getting rid of them be able to do so? This is important because elected mayors are sometimes independents, and sometimes from a different party than that controlling the council. It would be unfortunate for democracy, to say the least, if an respected independent mayor could be chucked out by collusion between a local government old guard on the council.

Quite contrary to the anything-goes spirit of the above, another proposal is to force big cities to have referendums on elected mayors whether they want to or not. This is probably the weakest idea in the chapter. Caught – as the government are – between a desire for elected mayors and a reluctance to impose them, the Conservatives have come down in favour of a double fudge. Rather than letting councils be, or imposing mayors, they are going to force councils to hold a referendum (in which most if not all councillors will campaign for a no vote). Then, beyond that, they are proposing to do this on the basis of current authority boundaries. In the case of Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, at least, the boundaries are historic irrelevancies. Far better to follow the London model and have directly elected subregional leaders (call them mayors if you like) that cover strategic issues across a range of unitary authorities.

The idea of local referendums triggered by 5% of electors sounds great until the first local referendums for expelling immigrants, leaving the EU, or reintroducing hanging start coming in. There need to be several safeguards on this proposal – first, referendums should be restricted to local government issues (not just issues that affect the locality); second, there should be a participation threshold, of say 20%, for a result to be considered valid; third, the option to hold the referendum outside the normal electoral cycle should be removed: this means that referendum votes would get higher and more representative turnout.