Genuinely Caring People; Shame They’ve Lost It – One View Of Government

Westminster spires 121x119    4771a.jpg There’s a view in some quarters that the Government is full of people who would like to get public policy ‘right’, but don’t know how to. This opinion, always a safe bet, dodges really difficult issues about the fundamental accountability of the electorate as voters, alongside the public accountability of politicians. The case for political literacy all round is at least as pressing as ever, in our complex and rapidly evolving modern society.
Three times in the last few weeks I’ve encountered the openly expressed view that, at least in terms of domestic public policy, the current U.K. Government comprises seriously earnest people who really do want, but fail, to do what’s best…. no names, no pack drill, but this view has in each case been promoted by a very senior figure in national policy who obviously shares the ambition to contribute to the common good, but doesn’t believe the Government knows how.
Far be it from me to argue for the sake of it with The Experts; but, on this occasion, debate (if not argue) I will. O.K., I’m a political person myself, so I have sympathy with the wider view that Running The Country is never that easy. But it’s not just that which makes me want to question the assessment which seems currently to find favour.
Who makes the decisions?
This is a difficult one. On the face of it, Ministers make the decisions about almost everything these days, sometimes guided by behind-the-scenes experts, sometimes by more generically positioned Civil Servants, sometimes by other parliamentarians.. and all the time by that little political weathervane in their heads, which tells them what is likely to be electorally deliverable, and what not.
Politics may be a science in the sense that it’s a judgement (usually, at least these days) based on the evidence of ‘what works’, but it’s also always an art – the Art, in that classic definition, of the Possible.
And to that definition must be added the timescale of a Parliament, never more than five years, usually significantly less. So, alongside the inevitable budgetary considerations, management of electorate expectations is also, always, a major factor to be built into any chosen programme of action.
Competing ideas, conflicting requirements and experimentation
New policies to support the common good don’t just arise from nowhere. And this, I suspect, is where the divergence of assessment of ‘success’ begins to arise. The nature of the Common Good (surprise!) depends on where you stand.
For an elector, a member of the voting public, the common good will usually be whatever you think will remedy what is ‘wrong’ with your own circumstances right now. (What’s ‘right’ typically escapes attention as a political issue…) Not everyone has the capacity, will or experience to judge personal interest against others’, competing, needs; and nor, necessarily, always should they (though we could debate this at length; what, for instance, about global warming, or education and optimal medical care for all?). Nonetheless, the definition of the common good often at base looks very much like a particular, personal ‘good, for better or for worse.
Then there are the professionals, with their highly honed specialist interests. If I’m an economist with a background in banking I will take a different view from an economist who focuses on, say, world development. If I’m a civil servant in the Home Office my emphasis will be different from my colleague in Regional Affairs, the Treasury or, say, Community Development.
Added to that, even within the same field of professional competence, there are famously huge differences in judgement. Many a conference has been reduced to a slanging match between people who, one might have hoped, had at heart the same view and expectations within their field. Sadly, the biggest rows can sometimes be about the smallest differences when expert egos are at work.
‘What works’ is never that obvious
And there’s the media. Some of it seeks thoughtfully to reflect the complexities of modern life. Some of it doesn’t. Things move on incessantly, whether or not this is acknowledged. What worked last year won’t necessarily work next – indeed, this is especially true if there has been effective intervention with significant impact in the meantime. But the charge of ‘U-turns’ is always there, fairly or unfairly. And for politicians with extremely time-limited scope for delivering change, any decision which brings with it potential exposure to this accusation is a very tough call.
It’s democracy, isn’t it?
So there we have it. For my money, it’s a big bonus that experts across the range of disciplines are prepared to be on record saying they consider the Government to comprise largely very ‘well-meaning’, sincere people. I’d be far more worried if that wasn’t a view that anyone of standing was prepared publicly to espouse.
Public policy is always a balance between rival interests and perspectives. The notion that it should arise from evidence and debate is right; but that evidence is increasingly complex, as individual differences in interpretation even between the most highly expert opinion leaders frequently demonstrate.
For any modern Government there is not only the need to weigh up the evidence underpinning public policy, there’s also the inevitable problem of trying to deliver substantive cultural shifts and other changes within very finite budgets and extremely circumscribed timetables.
Contemporary western societies are infinitely complex. We as an electorate have a responsibility as much as any Government minister to try to understand the wider issues, and to engage in dialogue in these critical matters. There is an obligation on all of us to determine our own informed views about ‘what works’. We mustn’t just ‘leave it to the experts’ any longer.

Posted on February 19, 2006, in Politics, Policies And Process, Science Politics And Policy, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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