In his fascinating and highly readable book ‘The Confidence Trap’ David Runciman explores the complex relationship between crisis and democracy, a subject which features heavily in Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic studies of early 19th century American democracy.
Tocqueville’s paradox – with which Runciman concurs – is that democracies need crises to throw them out of the torpor, complacency and self-indulgence to which they are prone, yet democracies are not very good at managing crises. Indeed, it is often at moments of crisis that the support increases for a more authoritarian or charismatic form of authority. Tocqueville surmised that because it takes democracies time to get their act together they need crises that endure, even though the longer a crisis lasts, the more danger there is of very bad things happening.
This is neither a simple nor an easy message. It is a however a useful perspective from which to consider the plight of many English local authorities. Unless the Coalition changes course, councils are facing unprecedented levels of cuts. Not only are virtually all non-statutory services at risk but local authorities of all political complexions are claiming they may soon not even be able to obey the law. This is a Tocquevillian crisis: deep, real and extended.
In the breast beating and soul searching taking place as local authorities face the ‘jaws of doom’ of growing need and falling income, lots of concepts and schemes fight for attention: community budgets, service transformation and demand management are all seen as ways of responding. The RSA’s own research with local authorities suggests that a serious focus on demand management leads directly to wider questions about values, the purpose and form of public services and the expectations, capacities and aspirations of citizens.
In such dire circumstances the imperatives of leadership, ethics and organisational change align. The local authority needs to show the crisis is real (not easy given previous wolf-calling tendencies), to show that it can act accordingly (even harder), and inspire others – including local citizens – also to rise to the challenge (hardest of all). There may be different ways of doing this but perhaps the most obvious and powerful is for council rulers to be seen to put aside their own personal, political and organisational interests in the face of the dire needs of the locality.
Local government was to a significant degree created by concerned citizens needing a vehicle to pursue the shared goals of municipal renewal and modernisation, but has since became an often alienated and alienating bundle of political, professional and bureaucratic interests. Arguably, councils have no choice now but to throw themselves back on their citizenry, to offer to deconstruct themselves into whatever form will best meet the exigencies of the moment.
We are used to the idea that the problem of public administration is less of conception than of execution., less of policy making, more of delivery: not in this potentially revolutionary moment. What matters now is the courage and imagination to abandon all pretence of being able to manage or resist and instead to commit to two acts of profound leadership, first to hand the crisis back to civil society, second to promise to lead whatever strategy then emerges. The consequences are unpredictable but any council that embarks fully on such a journey is likely to end it reduced in size but enhanced in authority, with less power but with more influence.
For councils to take this route of risk and short term self-sacrifice may be seen as their duty but it may also be the only way to fight back. Some authorities – both Labour and Conservative – are responding to the crisis by demanding or begging for mercy from the centre. At the moment the local citizenry may be sympathetic but it is unlikely to be moved. But when councils have put their bodies on the line and when even the most concerted efforts of united communities are seen not to be enough to protect basic services then the public will need little prompting to express its rage.
Many have seen great significance in David Cameron’s speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet a few days ago. By describing his purpose not simply as cutting the deficit but creating a ‘leaner more efficient state’ that delivers ‘better results for taxpayers’ the Prime Minister was seen to change the purpose of austerity from unfortunate necessity to deliberate political project. With the economy growing and reasonable levels of support for austerity persisting among key swing voters this shift in rhetoric may delight the true believers without seeming too much of a risk. But if the tide turns in our cities and counties then the idea that what is being endured has any other motive than absolute necessity could prove highly inflammatory.
Over the next twelve months in both the health service and local government austerity will really bite. The depth of this crisis and the ways in which central and local leaders respond are imponderables but my hunch is that some crunch moments for national and local democracy lie ahead.
I find myself unimpressed by a new Whitehall guide to better policy making….
During my brief undistinguished time in Government one of my trademarks was making politically unfeasible suggestions. On one occasion I wrote the PM a long note about how we should reduce the number of ministers or at least give them time-limited measurable tasks rather than let them wander around departments trying to find something interesting to do. Given that handing out ministerial portfolios is a key aspect of Downing Street patronage, the only impact of my suggestion was to further undermine my already tenuous credibility.
In a similar vein I argued passionately, and with absolutely no success, that the capability reviews of Government departments, which began in Labour’s third term, should not just explore the work of civil servants but also what seemed to me to be often the most dysfunctional aspect of Whitehall – the interface between ministers and special advisors, on the one hand, and senior civil servants on the other. I remember the then Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell responding to the suggestion that we scrutinise this aspect of departments with the mixture of politeness and disdain you might reserve for the man on the bus who confides in you his ability to control the weather with his feet.
In the age of leaks one top secret document that hasn’t, as far as I know, surfaced is the assessment made by Permanent Secretaries of the qualities of their Secretaries of State. Although this assessment is available to the Prime Minister, it is in everyone’s interests to keep it under wraps; not least those of the PM himself, who generally wants to make ministerial appointments on the basis of political considerations and not have his judgement clouded with irrelevancies like merit or ability.
I was once informally told how Labour cabinet ministers fared and it was interesting to see the almost total absence of correlation between political star status and those who – according to the PermSecs – were any good at their job. I can’t help thinking the quality of Government might be improved if after a decent time interval – say three years – these judgements were published.
Broadly speaking civil servants look for a short list of qualities in their political masters. In no particular order these include:
- A clear, consistent and coherent medium term plan which can be understood at all levels and provides a basis for policy officials to develop a sense of what is, and is not, likely to be well received.
- A reasonable and consistently applied distinction between political and strategic issues (where the ministers lead) and operational ones on which they don’t, unless there is good evidence of failure or a risk of it.
- Resilience and a willingness to take responsibility in the face of problems and attacks, including a resistance to acting in haste.
- Tending to trust officials and having a good instinct for where advice should be questioned and where it should be accepted.
- Respecting process and being courteous and demanding the same from the rest of the political team.
I am willing to bet that on a three point scale the Secretaries of State who score more than ten out of fifteen are in the minority.
All of which goes toward explaining why I found the recent report ‘Twelve actions to professionalise policy making‘, produced by the Whitehall Policy Profession Board, deeply underwhelming.
Once again the political interface is deemed too hot to touch and so, once again, the whole approach is of limited value and highly artificial. I say this despite the fact that I am quoted (although not named) in the report *.
The Coalition deserves praise for some important improvements in the way Government works. Fixed term Parliaments are a big step forward (imagine the blight now on Government if we were constantly discussing whether David Cameron might call a spring election next year). There have also been some important innovations in evidence gathering – such as the work of the Behavioural Insights Team and the ‘What Works Centres’. The very limited number of ministerial changes of office is also a boon, especially after the appaling turnover rate under Labour.
But still, the fiction persists that we can substantially improve policy making without discussing the performance of ministers and the interface between them and civil servants. As long as it does, the promise to improve the quality of policy making in Whitehall will ring hollow.
*My quote: ‘Designers assume that a problem needs to be redefined, you need to really understand what the nature of the problem is, you need to take it apart…they will spend time talking to employees, customers and clients….if there’s one set of skills Departments lack it’s not policy making, it’s design)
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, Uncategorized
A lively argument on the Today programme (at 30 minutes) offered a fascinating example of cultural theory.
Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for a school of thought which labours under the unhelpfully vague title ‘cultural theory’. I offered my own interpretation of the theory in my annual lecture last year, as well as applying it to key challenges facing modern Britain. To recap in the briefest of ways, the theory identifies four ways of thinking about and approaching complex organisational or social change: the hierarchical perspective (think leadership, strategy, bureaucracy), the solidaristic (think tribe, values, community), the individualistic (think acquisitiveness, markets, enterprise) and the fatalistic (think apathy, scepticism).
The theory goes on to argue that the best (‘clumsy’) solutions combine the first three – active – modes (whilst recognising the ubiquity of fatalism) but that these are always difficult to create and sustain because each perspective gains much of its legitimacy and energy from its critique of the others.
There are lots of interesting implications and applications of the theory, many of which I have written about over the years. The Today programme item brought alive an example of what happens when the different ways of thinking are aligned in a particular way.
The debate was over Greenpeace’s continuing opposition to all forms of Genetically Modified food, and in particular, ‘golden rice’. The crop holds out the possibility of major advances against the scourge of vitamin A deficiency, which every year costs the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor people in the developing world and the sight of hundreds of thousands more.
Presenter James Naughtie chaired a very lively debate between two environmentalists, both with strong and impressive records of research and activism. On one side was Mark Lynas arguing against the Greenpeace line, on the other was Dr Tony Juniper defending opposition to GM.
At the end of the debate Naughtie said ‘well, that has given us a very clear picture of where the dividing line is!’
So it had – but not just of the issue itself. Also on display was a classic confrontation between cultural paradigms.
The ‘Allow Golden Rice Now’ campaign which Lynas was promoting is a combination of the hierarchical case (a big solution backed by scientific experts and deliverable by bureaucracies) and the individualistic one (solving problems through markets and technological innovation). These two perspectives are ranged against a solidaristic critique, suspicious of big business, hostile to top down solutions and instead emphasising the need to change power structures and promote different values and behaviours amongst both power holders and subsistence farmers.
The structure of the debate was Lynas on the attack and Juniper on the defence, which reflected the two-against-one balance of the debate. Because many of us feel guilty about our lack of action on the environment (and due to a generally misplaced tendency to trust NGOs more than Government or big business) we are inclined to defer to Greenpeace on environmental issues but here were the other perspectives seeing they at last had their chance to kick back.
Listening again to the debate I formed some tentative conclusions:
It is rare to hear the different perspectives so clearly aligned in alliance and opposition – that’s why the debate was so fascinating – but such differences can often be discerned in more opaque debates.
The divides between cultural perspectives receive much less attention than more obvious ones (which often overlay them) – such as left versus right – but they can be more important in explaining why the right (‘clumsy’) solution isn’t found and wrong (‘elegant’) ones promoted.
When there is such a clear alignment of two against one (and many traditionally solidaristic voices in this space don’t agree with Greenpeace) the one is likely to lose. If I were Greenpeace I would be planning an elegant retreat from this particular battle.
And – if the NGO does change its stance - progressive advocates of Golden Rice wanting to introduce the crop while avoiding the dangers of farmers being dependent on big business, or technology being used as an excuse not to address issues of power and engagement, could do a lot worse than getting the advice of Greenpeace: thus a ‘clumsy solution’.
A number of media commentators (for example, Danny Finkelstein today in the Times) have observed that conference season seems to be about promises not challenges. Although Nick Clegg has little but more pain to offer his Party, Labour and Conservative politicians have generally plumped for a crowd-pleasing attitude to both their party faithful and the half-listening public.
Speeches have adopted the reassuring tone of self-certainty and disdain for opponents while free school lunches, tax breaks for spouses, energy and fuel tax freezes have been among the examples of the largesse on offer to voters. There is an inverse relationship between specificity and sacrifice – the promises are concrete while the sense that there is still tough stuff ahead is vaguely asserted with the implication that the pain will fall only on the undeserved (whether they be energy company fat cats or the long term unemployed).
Yet, any objective observer of the position of the UK would say that in both the short and longer term citizens will have to make demanding adaptations if we are to meet challenges such as global competition, austerity, population ageing and climate change.
The argument of my RSA annual lecture in 2007 – that we face a widening gap between the aspirations we have for a better society and the trajectory on which current ways of thinking and acting place us – is, if anything, more obvious today than six years ago.
Its pointless blaming the individuals: Political insecurity, electoral competition and public exhaustion are key factors at work in this retreat to populism. All the party leaders have become used to questions hanging over their own leadership and their Party’s prospects at the next election. They simply lack the authority to challenge their Party. With some justification each party thinks it will lose out if it doesn’t offer the voters the best bag of goodies. Meanwhile the public’s tolerance for bad news has been eroded by years of economic gloom and falling living standards.
It is very easy to be pious and superior when judging politicians. As a failed Prime Ministerial speech writer I am only too aware of how hard it is to translate rigour and subtlety into a viable and engaging political message. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be deeply underwhelmed by the tone of this conference season.
There has been the lack of a credible story about the longer term challenges and choices facing Britain. Thatcher saw the liberation of the individual, and a shift of influence over human affairs from state to market as key to the future. For Blair the task was modernisation. Ideological narrowness in the former and the reductiveness of the latter are valid criticisms, but at least both were based on a clear analysis of what needed to change. Today’s respective top line offers – shifting power from big business and abolishing the deficit – may be perfectly respectable steps on a road, but a road to where?
Once again, but this time particularly acutely, the narratives on offer have a missing middle. At the top are value assertions about fairness, freedom, parenthood and apple pie; at the base, specific policy commitments. Missing is an account of the underlying intellectual analysis and political strategy which connects the two. Miliband tries harder, with ideas like pre-distribution and responsible capitalism, but still when the chips are down tactics and opportunism trump strategy and clarity.
Worse still, is the absence of the public as subjects rather than the objects of politics. History shows that agency matters – particularly in mature democracies. As I have argued before, that’s why the Labour’s statist grand plan to abolish child poverty achieved less public engagement that the Mayor of Oklahoma’s folksy fat busting. I defended the Big Society for longer than most of David Cameron’s allies because there was at least the potential for a credible story of reciprocity between change in Government and complementary changes in public norms and expectations.
At question is the whole paradigm of national politics. The contrast with local government is telling. Just about every council leader I speak to knows that engaging citizens as partners (both through their institutions and as individuals) is vital to economic renewal and managing the gap between demands and resources.
‘We’re in this together’ was crafted as a statement about fairness. It would be more powerful as a message about how change occurs in society and the importance to social and economic renewal of shared understanding and commitment. Our prospects depend on the ability of us, as citizens, to adapt and develop. The task of politicians (in Government and opposition) is – through challenge and support – to help us be the people we need to be to create the future we say we want.
We need our politicians to be personal trainers edging us towards greater fitness through being clear, demanding and encouraging. Instead, as a class, they feel more like slightly creepy relatives wheedling their way into our affections by telling tall tales and slipping us sweets that we enjoy at the time, but may end up making us feel sick.
In a mixed LRB review of Christian Caryl’s book ‘Strange Rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century’, David Runciman makes a point about the circuitous route of change:
‘The world that fell apart at the end of the 1970s had begun to unravel much earlier in the decade, in the succession of crises that included the demise of Bretton Woods, the Arab-Israeli war, the subsequent oil shocks and a world wide recession. That confused and confusing period turned out to be the dawn of neoliberalism, though it wasn’t until much later that it became clear what had happened’.
He goes on to say
‘Now that neoliberal order is stumbling through its own succession of crises. We are barely five years into the unravelling, if that is what is taking place’.
This analysis sheds some historical light on whether Ed Miliband’s return to statist social democracy will prove to be a wise move.
There are two core assertions lying behind the Miliband programme: the first is that capitalism needs to be rebalanced from big business to small, from producer to consumer and from shareholder to worker. The second – implicitly – is that in a global competitive economy this rebalancing can be achieved by the state without major malign side effects.
The first assertion is the easier to sustain, indeed would be shared by people across the political spectrum. In many ways big business has not come up with the goods; in investment, responsible tax payment, resource use, fair remuneration. In key sectors – most notably finance, energy and water - it is clear there has been systemic ’rent seeking’ (using market position to make money without adding value).
Whether the failings of big capitalism are enough to overcome public scepticism about the state, about Labour and about its leader is another matter, but here again it is worth quoting Runciman on the origins of neoliberal political hegemony:
‘The real story of the late 1970s in the democratic West is that people were tired of political and industrial strife and were willing to try something different, however uncomfortable. It wasn’t a revolution: more a collective shrug’
If we replace 1970s with 2010s and the words ‘political and industrial strife’ with ‘falling living standards and high unemployment’ the case can be made that while only a minority of voters share the enthusiasm of the left for Miliband’s speech, it might yet prove to be a successful gamble. Certainly, the Conservatives now face the challenge of attacking Labour’s policies without looking like they are defending unpopular corporate interests.
It is one of our many cognitive frailties that we tend to focus on unusual events rather than recognising longer term trends. The credit crunch and the resulting economic crisis was, of course, critical but the underlying trend is the thirty year neoliberal experiment in the West running out of road, assailed by its own internal tensions and populist critiques from both the right and left.
Whatever his other failings, Labour’s leader is not unrealistic: he does not think he can single handedly move the centre of political gravity to the left. Instead – and this realistically is all the boldness we can hope for from democratic politicians – he has made a judgment about where the future centre might be and taken the gamble to go there ahead of the electorate (and most of the media).
Whether or not it succeeds, this was then a historically significant speech. However, the pleasure that Miliband’s team gets from reading the reaction of the left may need to be qualified by a final extract from David Runciman:
‘What we are waiting for is a counter-counter revolution, led by progressives who have learnt the lessons from the age of neoliberalism and are unafraid to use its instruments to overthrow them….Someone will get there in the end and maybe by the end of the decade…..but it is unlikely to be anyone near a position of power right now’.