No pain, no gain

May 9, 2012 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Controversy has been sparked by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s decision yesterday not to publish the official internal risk assessment for the NHS reforms. His explanation is cogent, making the case to retain ‘a safe space where officials are able to give ministers full and frank advice in developing policies and programmes’. When Labour spokesperson Andy Burnham says ‘this disgraceful decision is a cover up of epic proportions’ we must, assume, first, he has forgotten that the Labour Government of which he was part would never have dreamt of publishing something so dangerous and, second, he has fully consulted his shadow cabinet colleagues – particularly Mr Balls and shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy – about this radical commitment to treat departmental policy development as a totally open book if and when Labour returns to office.

But while understanding the reasons for Mr Lansley’s decision in practice I think it is wrong in principle. Of course, were the risk assessment published it would lead to a slew of alarmist headlines. By definition risk assessments are there to interrogate worst cases; for example the RSA’s includes fire and flooding as well as IT melt-down or a sudden drop in Fellowship recruitment.

When I was in Downing Street we took it for granted that when an evaluation of Government policy was, say, 80% positive it would be the other fifth which would be the story. In news coverage of the risk assessment, the detailed metrics of the Departmental evaluation would be ignored or come well down a news story highlighting all the terrible things that could conceivably go wrong with the reforms. (By the way, as Ben Goldacre’s deconstruction of cancer scare stories vividly underlines, the problem of proportionality in risk reporting isn’t just one for politicians.)

However, there are two principles which outweigh my natural sympathy for ministers and officials and scepticism about the press. First, the simple question of public accountability; if ministers are taking big risks with our money and our services and if open government means anything, surely we deserve and need to know about it? By all means ministers can tell us why they disagree with the assessment or why they think the risk worth taking, but to supress the assessment itself is hard to justify and will simply lead people to assume the worst.

The second reason goes back to that old RSA favourite ‘the social aspiration gap’. As my regular reader will recall (‘hi mum, lovely to see you the other night, try to not to work so hard’), the idea of the gap is that in certain ways we need to enhance citizen capabilities if we are to create the future most of us say we want. One of those attributes is greater engagement, by which is meant a capacity in citizens to recognise and relate to the difficult choices which need to be made by us and on our behalf.

In the same newspaper in which I read about Mr Lansley’s decision there is a powerful column by Daniel Finklestein. The Executive Editor of the Times expresses his anxiety at the rise of extremist populism across Europe and calls on voters to face up to the necessity of hard choices on the road back to economic stability. But, as he says, to escape the folie a deux of dishonest politicians and an unreasonable public requires a step change in the candour and courage of mainstream leaders; ‘At the last election no party felt able to level with [the voters] about how bad things were, and what would be needed to put things right because they correctly divined that if they tried to do so they would be horribly damaged’.

Which takes us back to Mr Lansley’s dilemma and the case for sharing Governmental dilemmas with the public. Any genuine economic and fiscal risk assessment carried out before the last election would have forced politicians to confront the issues more openly and honestly and would have prepared the voters better for what was ahead.

Medium term pain for long term gain: what’s true for the economy is true also for the quality of dialogue between politicians and citizens.

PS: On the subject of risk, it’s now less than 4 weeks until I try and do a mountain marathon in aid of the RSA Great Room appeal. I haven’t actually done a risk assessment, but on the basis that risk needs to be balanced by gain, all donations gratefully received



  • Indy Neogy

    Probably too late for you to read this – but the big big problem with Lansley’s attitude is that he has brushed aside criticism of the risks several times over the last year by claiming that internal studies – presumably this one – showed that critics didn’t have the right end of the stick.

    Given that many of the critics have a very good record of prediction, this looks like another railroading exercise.

    Worth mentioning as well that Mr Finklestein is part of a large number of “serious people” from George Osbourne down to (apparently) yourself who seem unwilling to level with themselves that their model of how the economy works is wrong, especially for the long term. See Jonathan Portes latest if you need more evidence.

    It sounds very grown up to talk about “no pain, no gain” but in fact it’s simply a platitude. If the pain isn’t a result of the right activities, it will in fact lead to no gain.

  • Tim Kitchin

    If, as seems likely, we can’t handle the truth, then it is our social accountability that need reforming. While we may long since have abandoned the idea of government as social agents, and media as constructive critics, surely the third way is to cultivate enlightened and direct self-government, as workers and citizens.

    The most disturbing thing, however, is that we do not, in fact, trust ourselves as active citizens. Which is why, at a structural level, the Big Society project will fail. When users are in charge, who governs the users?

    We are a national divided against ourselves. And this is, at root, a philosophical failing. Common purpose cannot thrive without common identity. An identity crusted over by the death of philosophical idealism and its replacement utilitarianism, naturalism and instrumentalism and its social adjuncts – the moral vacuum of rights-based individualism.

    Alongside plugging the social aspiration gap (with its echoes of C Wright Mill’s ‘Social Imagination’) we must reach for a solution for the political aspiration gap – ‘a The Political Imagination’ – to cultivate not just engagement, but participation.