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.


A few signposts off

Reboot Britain

Reboot Britain

We can learn things from the way they elect Popes – and the way they used to.

Chris Dillow reprises his ‘extremist not a fanatic’ theme – that it is rational not to care too much about politics – and that politics benefits from our indifference.

And finally ‘Reboot Britain’ will be worth keeping an eye on – it will have a significant strand covering democratic renewal.

I’m hoping that it will provide another run-out for the PICamp project that started very successfully in Belfast last month.

Political Innovation

picamp-logoI’ve just got back from the PICamp event in Belfast. For a first-time event in a relatively small polity, I think it went extremely well. Steve Lawson has posted a really good round-up of the day.

It highlighted the importance of ‘gamechanging’ as opposed to campagning, consensus-building and caucusing. Mick Fealty, the MC for the day put it well towards the end of the day (here’s the audio file) as he tried to pull the event away from identifying the problems and towards how positive action can come from informal gatherings such as this.

A number of people who came to PICamp were people who didn’t often go to political conferences.

Politics geeks and social media geeks come from quite a different background, and some of the people who had attended events like Barcamp, had seen the effectiveness of them as a way of addressing issues, saw PICamp as an opportunity to explore political issues.

The convening blog for the event, Slugger O’Toole, is a powerful player in Northern Ireland’s politics (Slugger’s PICamp round-up is here), and it attracts lots of comments on a regular basis. But many of the people in the room confessed that they regularly visited Slugger, but didn’t often comment because they either didn’t feel strongly enough to commit thoughts to paper, or they were worried about being attacked by the more fanatical trolls that inhabit all large comment blogs.

@alaninbelfast summed this up nicely here.

Empower failure

According to the Municipal Journal, the UK Government has abandoned plans to introduce a Community Empowerment Bill, which would have implemented some parts of the Communities in Control White Paper.

According to the Commons authorities, the Bill would have enabled remote voting in Council meetings, reduced the barriers to introducing an elected mayor, change the definition of politically restricted posts, reform the office of alderman, and modernise the law relating to parish councils.

It is not known whether these provisions will be taken forward in any other way.

Announcing picamp Belfast

picamp-logoOver the next few weeks, I’m going to be promoting and working on ‘picamp’ – the political innovation camp event in Belfast on the 26th of May.

This project is being done in conjunction with the Northern Ireland political weblog Slugger O’Toole, with NESTA-sponsored Amplified ’09 and Queens University Belfast who have kindly allowed us to use their premises for the day.

The event will be a unconference – it will be managed in exactly the same way as a conventional conference, but there won’t be any listed speakers, any agenda or any charge to attend.

We’ve seen a proliferation of these unconferences recently. In Washington DC, Transparency Camp took place in March and one is planned for the UK in July. New applications that drive different forms of community are widely seen to have a disruptive potential. Continue reading