Confessions of one of the myriad skiving bastards who take your taxes and laugh
This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch
I work in local government. I realise that for many HC readers this makes me not so much a human being as a notifiable disease. But stay with me; I’ve got, y’know, words; some of which may even be in the right order.
For obvious reasons I can’t reveal which council I work for. Call it Council X. It is in the North East of England and has, let us say, an angelic reputation. I am near the bottom of the local authority food chain: I only recently broke the 20k barrier after over twenty years’ service. Most local government workers are not especially well paid, though we do get generous leave and flexible working arrangements. (Don’t get me started on the pension scheme, though. It’s got more holes than a pair of ripped fishnets and I suspect it will collapse soon. And lower-paid workers like me are unlikely to enjoy many years’ retirement anyway.)
Council workers are of course pretty much like other people – some good, some bad, some hard-working, some a tad feckless. You wouldn’t think this from the Daily Mail, of course. In the pages of that splendid organ the term public sector is bound to be capitalised soon. On that day the Public Sector will join No Man’s Land, Mordor and the Romulan Neutral Zone as a term for a dark and terrible place from whence any evil might spring upon decent folk.
The paradox I’d like to address here is that local government is almost universally loathed at a time when – in theory, at least – it has never been so well-run. By well-run I mean managed along private sector lines. What else defines good leadership and general efficiency than the private sector, after all? Okay, not the banks. Or Woolworths. Or the American car industry. But the bit of the private sector that does still more or less work is bloody good, isn’t it?
In Council X we can’t get enough of the private sector approach. I was recently on a training course that acquainted me with the methods of the Toyota car company. It’s called Kaizen and it’s excellent if you want to make and sell cars. Of course Council X doesn’t make or sell cars, though it does buy a lot of white vans. But, hey, surely the principle is sound? Private sector values vs public sector arsing around. No contest.
Well, maybe, but there are some facts that should give anyone pause for thought. If private sector values were right in every circumstance, things would be rather different down at the MoD. They wouldn’t just be buying a few tanks from Vickers et al. They’d be hiring the entire armed forces in the way governments used to, back in the free enterprise 16th century. There’d be none of this ‘our brave boys’ folderol, just juicy contracts for SquaddieCorp, Bombs R Us, and House of Frigate.
But that’s not how we do things when we go to war. One of the obvious characteristics of war or indeed any major national emergency is that private enterprise is put on hold for a while, or at least toned down considerably. Still, we’re not at war – not properly, anyway. And there isn’t any other national emergency – apart from imminent economic meltdown and the widespread social unrest this usually brings. But I digress; let’s keep things simple and look at the problem as it’s experienced by poor old Valdemar and his cohorts.
First, a few home truths. The public sector is indeed wasteful because it is staggeringly bureaucratic. It has become more so in recent decades and it shows every sign of getting worse. It started with the creation of quangos in the Seventies, continued under Thatcherism, and really took off under Blair. Thatcherism was about a lot of things, but two things certainly increased during her term in office – centralisation of state power, and welfare dependency. The abolition of the GLC and the regional metropolitan councils – all staunch Labour – can be seen as a party political move. Naughty newt-loving Ken annoyed the Iron Lady. But breaking up big regional power blocks in England was also part of a general trend towards centralisation that got going and continues simply because the state expands as and when it can, almost regardless of circumstances or who’s in power.
Technology is the main driving force of state expansion, and ideology – if any is needed – simply accommodates itself to the shape of the state machine. Orwell remarks somewhere that we are only as moral (or, by inference, immoral) as our technology allows us to be. By the same token the state is only as powerful in the life of its subjects as its technical resources allow it to be.
It’s often been claimed that there were once people in power at Westminster who’d never have wanted to impose ID cards, who’d never have dreamed of setting up a national DNA database, who would have snorted with derision at the idea of CCTV cameras on every street corner. But the idea that our freedoms – historically, rather recent innovations, by and large – were protected by noble civil servants and selfless MPs has always seemed dodgy to me. No doubt a few such men did rise to the top when conditions were suitable. But I suspect they were the product of those conditions, not the creators of them – accidental libertarians, if you like. From what I have seen, the kind of people who rise in power structures really want power over others more than anything else. It is their high.
What has prevented these power junkies from imposing greater and greater centralised controls upon us until now is simply that the means were not available. Consider the pace of change. From telegraph to telephone took about three generations, which seemed like breakneck speed to the Victorians. From the fax machine to email took less than twenty years. The technology of government, of corporate control, is making the surveillance state and all the rest of it easier by the minute. Admittedly there are countervailing forces, and not just in the sheer human frailty that leaves a memory stick in a taxi. But overall the trend is inexorable.
One result of these trends towards central control is that local democracy has been rendered almost pointless. Firstly, councils are now hedged in with so many national policy directives that the ‘elected members’ are rather like a bank’s board of non-executive directors. In theory, they are in charge. In practice, the managers look at what Whitehall wants and do it their way. The elected members are often spoken of by management in rather dismissive terms; which isn’t surprising, because a lot of them are dim. Becoming a councillor, once the obvious first stage for any significant political career, has become a job for people who are no-hopers at anything above the district level. A few years ago I pointed out to a councillor in X that there was a spelling mistake on his web site. He testily asked me to point it out. It was the word ‘constitiency’, in nice big letters at the top of the page.
Secondly, councils aren’t allowed to do things by themselves these days. Core services, such as libraries or refuse collection, might be run entirely by the authority. But almost every initiative Whitehall hands down involves a ‘multi-agency’ approach. This means the council links up with partner bodies – charities, stakeholder groups, NHS Trusts, transport bodies, you name it. So even if a local councillor has sterling qualities, the fact is that ninety per cent of what matters is going to be decided by unelected officials at meetings the councillor won’t attend.
On the proliferation of unelected bodies that handle public services, I take a mixed view. A major charity like the RNIB, with which I’ve had some involvement, offers real expertise on an important subject. Other organisations – as HC contributors have noted – seem to be cooked up for specific political purposes. The earmarking of central government funding for some groups in society to the exclusion of others is guaranteed to make this happen. If you can get enough black, teenage single parents to sign up to a project, you hit the jackpot. If you are charged with helping partially-sighted white pensioners you struggle to get noticed at all, let alone funded.
How do the values of the private sector help in such a situation. The short answer is, they can’t. The long answer is they probably make things worse. The private sector is about making money. It’s about efficiency only in so far as efficiency helps you make money. Efficiency is not some mystical end in itself, and without the clear commercial incentives of ‘real world’ economics, business management theories that wowed them in California (albeit about ten years ago) become so much Powerpoint bollocks in the training rooms of X.
But one undeniable fact has been taken on board – managers of big private sector firms are paid a lot of money. No surprises, then, that top public sector management has got its snout firmly in the trough. And the natural way to justify a whopping great salary – comparable with, say, a LloydsTSB director before the current little difficulty – is to have a bigger and bigger staff of bureaucrats beneath you. The number of management layers at X, coupled with frequent reorganisations to create well-paid jobs, speaks volumes about what really matters to those in charge.
And that’s why, gentle reader, your local council may be a bit crap at doing a lot of the things you want it to do. It is too busy doing things Gordon Brown, Jacqui Smith, the Millipedes etc have told it to do, and by the time it’s done all those and paid its various executives, it’s got no money to fix that lamppost outside your front door. Mind how you go.
I have no solution to offer – I doubt that there is one. In theory English local government could be remodelled on Continental lines, with power – and funding – devolved as it is in Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. It won’t happen because localising power is something our national politicians favour when they’re in Opposition and then forget about when they’re in charge. But who knows? Maybe the Tories will prove me wrong. Not long ago I heard Ken Clarke saying he’d ‘always been a localist’. Admittedly I spat Pringles all over my keyboard when he said it. But these are strange times, so strange that one can imagine even democracy might come to flourish in our land.
Monday, 16 March 2009
Confessions of one of the myriad skiving bastards who take your taxes and laugh