Today the BBC struggled to grasp the obvious when interviewing George Osborne. We have just witnessed a twelve year ruinously expensive experiment, which entailed throwing money at public services, calling it investment, and assuming it would abolish poverty, raise educational standards for all and cure us of our illnesses. Instead it has left us ever deeper in debt, with burgeoning welfare rolls, a deep recession, poor quality services in many areas, a growing gap between independent schools and the rest and now a bungled response to swine flu as a fitting coda for the whole dreadful experience. We are now into the final baroque or punk phase, where it is just words. We are promised ever more millions or billions or trillions, just to contrast with so called “Tory cuts” and to make the task of any incoming government so much more difficult as it has to tear up the promises that never had money to back them.
Labour’s response is to offer more of the same, whilst no longer having the borrowing power to go on delivering it after the next election, if by any chance they were to be elected. They still do not understand that you can have too many spin docotors, initiatives, regulations, quangos, regional governments, spy cameras, administrators and management consultancies. It’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it, that matters.
One of the ways Labour has debauched the public service and wasted money is through their belief in “cross cutting issues”, “joined up government” and “partnership working”. The underlying perception that some probems like poor educational achievement or drugs or worklessness required responses from more than one department or agency was correct. That is why they inherited a Cabinet committee system designed to allocate work and decide priorities between departments in response to such issues.
Labour, believing their own rhetoric that no-one had noticed this before, spawned a huge army of quangos, working groups, partnerships and committees on top of a sensible number of internal government Cabinet committees to tackle this all in a more public way. They all needed their own armies of clerks, managers, spin doctors, PR specialists and elected officials to busy themselves with surveys, reports and injunctions to others to live better lives. Local government was cajoled or conned into doing the same thing at considerable expense.
Partnerships and cross cutting working became the ultimate way of wasting money and ducking responsibility. If a Chief Education Officer and a few Headteachers were responsible for the quality of education we knew who to blame and who to ask to put things right. If you needed to involve social services to discuss family deprivation,the police to deal with bad conduct, planners to deal with poor design of housing estates, the youth service to deal with out of hours activities and the rest no-one was to blame. Instead of solving the whole problem you just ended up spending more money and time getting nowhere. No one person or institution was responsible. Mettings took the form of laying off risk and demanding more resoruces.
In a business things usually work best if you keep the numbers of senior managers under good control, give them clear responsibilities and targets, and let them get on with it. They will liaise with colleagues if necessary, usually on the email or phone. It is the job of the board to deal with the “cross cutting” issues, to make sure the different jobs and targets fit into a harmonious whole. You keep down the number of working meeetings between people doing fundamentally different things.
I find it difficult to grasp why people buy the lie that quality can only go up if more money is spent. The law of reducing returns has long since set into some parts of the public service. If you throw more managers, spin doctors and management consultants at them, they will get worse, not better. We need to identify the good managers, give them tasks they can manage and stretching targets to hit. We need to dismantle the brueaucratic empires of spin, over regulation and waste.They are now the problem, not the solution.