Ethical renewal to banish that fin de siecle feeling

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 15/10/11]

The Cash for Questions scandal and the associated perception of endemic sleaze contributed to the demise of the Major government. It ushered in a period of institutional renewal. The Committee for Standards in Public Life was established under Lord Nolan in the mid-1990s to keep an eye on MPs’ conduct. Similarly, the expenses scandal contributed not only in some small way to Gordon Brown’s demise but also to a substantial minority of Parliamentarians exiting stage left. It led to the end of self-scrutiny as the processing of MPs expense claims passed to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Equally significantly, it heralded a new government promising a new cleaner, fresher approach to politics. How quickly such promises turn to dust.

These were scandals afflicting tired governments. If we think about the significance of Cash for Questions or the expenses scandal, they did not really go to the heart of the business of governing. Cash for Questions was about some relatively inconsequential backbenchers receiving inappropriate payments for asking questions in the House. With its imagery of allegedly dodgy businessmen and publicists handing over brown envelopes of used notes to elected Members it caused outrage and played well in the media. But its impact upon the course of policy or the practice of governing was arguably relatively minimal. In the light of current experiences it all looks rather tame. Similarly, the expenses scandal exposed many MPs as greedy, grasping and out of touch, but it did not speak directly to the way in which policy is made.
The situation we face now has far more serious implications for government. Read more of this post

Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? Read more of this post

Caring diddlysquat about democracy

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 27/09/11]

One of the less pleasant characteristics of the Coalition government is its cavalier attitude towards transparency, accountability and Parliamentary process. This is part of a more general impoverishment of democratic practice.

We hear reports of serious, but relatively small scale, issues such as Ministerial advisors using private email accounts for Government business in order to evade oversight and avoid Freedom of Information requests. We have last week’s news reports of the proposed scheme of Ministerial buddying with big business. This is a scheme which, in many other contexts, would be condemned as tantamount to formalising the corruption of the political process.

The Government is not above ignoring the letter and the spirit of good Parliamentary practice. Examples proliferate. Read more of this post

Global Political Leadership – The Need For Bravery And Vision

Today I posted over at Dale & Co:

The global financial system continues to convulse. The latest shock to the system is the exposure of an alleged $2bn fraud at UBS. Grave concerns about the external regulation of the financial system are reinforced by equally serious concerns about the internal regulation of investment banks. And, lest we forget, this $2bn bet that went wrong follows commitments by investment banks that they had overhauled their governance structures so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again.

Today finance ministers are meeting in Poland to see if they can work out what to do to stave off the implosion of the Eurozone, and closer to home the political classes are still digesting the proposals contained in the Vickers report.

The seriousness of the financial crisis is hard to overstate. But even so the political diagnosis of the problem lacks vision and bravery. Read more of this post

If We’re Concerned About The Legacy We’re Leaving Our Children…

Today I posted over at Dale & Co:

It will be interesting to see how the Chancellor responds to the Treasury Select Committee’s report on the Private Finance Initiative, released to relatively little fanfare on Friday. The Select Committee’s conclusions are stark. The Private Finance Initiative, in its present form, fails to deliver value for money. It should be avoided, except in limited circumstances, until serious structural failings can be addressed.

Pretty much all “public” infrastructure investment over the last twenty years has been financed using PFI. So this conclusion represents a profound challenge. It is a call for a radical change in policy. Not so much a new approach but a return to the old one.

You can read the full post here.

Compassionate, careless or conniving?

Today I posted over at Dale & Co:

In the run up to the Parliamentary recess the country was transfixed by a scandal involving the Conservative contingent of the Government, the media, powerful private companies and a Select Committee exerting itself. The scandal gained momentum when it was clear that particularly vulnerable people were being affected by unacceptable or underhand practice.

There is another scandal brewing which has the same cocktail of ingredients. I am talking about the changes to Incapacity Benefit and the implementation of Employment Support Allowance. The rhetoric of reform here is positive. Some might even say unexceptional. But the practice is, by comparison, looking decidedly ropey. As so often turns out to be the case.

You can read the full post here.

Cameron ploughs on with public sector reform

Today I posted my first piece over at Dale & Co.

You can find it here: Cameron ploughs on with public sector reform

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