Ken Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce has focussed its attention on redistributing power from the Prime Minister, and special advisors, to Parliament. This has resulted in proposals such as giving Parliament control over the decision to go to war, increasing Parliament’s power to set its own agenda and enhancing the capabilities and status of select committees. These proposals are extremely good and should serve to improve the quality of democratic decision making by increasing the extent to which Parliament is able to properly hold government to account.
However, the report sets its objectives rather higher than a marginal improvement in the quality of policy. It aims to "rebuild public trust in our democratic institutions". Achieving that aim will require a more fundamental rethink than has been contained in either this report or the original interim report. The limitations of this report can be seen in the fact that it is titled "Power to the People" but subtitled "Rebuilding Parliament". It might strengthen Parliament but does not address the more important question of where the division of responsibility for public services should lie between politicians, whether the executive or Parliament, and civil society, the People.
Clarke’s report is trusting parliamentary accountability to end the mistakes which have so eroded faith in our politics: the collapse of the Child Support Agency and the failure to deport foreign prisoners by the Home Office to name a couple of recent examples. These big mistakes can be added to continuing failures in the public services more broadly. In education 4 out of 10 pupils fail to attain the minimum standards in English and Maths that the QCA deems necessary for ‘Life, Learning and Work’. In the fight against crime England and Wales were ranked third worst out of 39 countries in Home Office comparative statistics. In healthcare the NHS ranks just about the worst out of 19 peer countries examined by the British Medical Journal and has the highest rate of hospital infections according to the National Audit Office. The question is whether Parliamentary accountability is enough. Is a lack of proper care and attention the cause of public service failure or do politicians fundamentally lack the capability to handle the many tasks they have taken upon themselves?
To answer this question we need to look at the management task that politicians are setting themselves and whether they are suitably equipped to handle it. Many central government departments are vast, monolithic conglomerates with huge numbers of staff and Byzantine chains of authority. The NHS has 1.3 million staff, the Home Office is responsible for 350,000. Whitehall departments are also responsible for 529 quangos which sit outside each department’s organisation and are largely unnacountable. Even the most experienced and highly talented of leaders would likely prove unable to manage such an organisation. This is why there has been a general retreat from conglomerates in the private sector.
Unfortunately, government departments aren’t run by experienced managers but by politicians who generally have little or no management experience. Their political career prepares them well for public relations work but few have managed an organisation of any size before. The Civil Service are there to help. However, when the challenge facing a minister is to lead changes civil servants do not understand or support or control bureaucratic mistakes, as John Reid needed to on taking over the Home Office, they cannot leave the Civil Service undisturbed. A new Secretary of State will be thrust straight into the challenge of managing some of the largest and most organisationally complex organisations in the country (in the case of the NHS one of the largest organisations in the world). Ministers also don’t stay in position for very long. John Reid has had 9 different ministerial jobs in the last 10 years. This both undermines accountability and prevents long term planning.
Unmanageable departments combined with inexperienced and short term leadership produces dismally bad performance. This is what erodes people’s trust in politics. People are right not to trust the modern British state to fulfil all of the functions it has assigned to itself and right to distrust every politician who tells them that it can. If they really want to rebuild trust in politics the Conservatives will need to start being honest about the need for genuine decentralisation and handing real authority back to civil society.
This will mean challenging a few sacred cows. Fundamental reform of the NHS. Genuine choice in education. Politicians need to get out of management. They need to accept that their role should be to set high level policy but leave detailed control of services to experienced professionals managing decentralised services and responding, as far as possible, to the priorities of the people.