While many conservatives might look to Pope Francis as a source of spiritual inspiration, he’s not an obvious role model when it comes to the more mundane matters of public administration.
And yet that’s to forget one of the reasons why Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to papacy in the first place. His predecessor’s shock abdication was, in part, prompted by a losing battle with the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy – and the response of the College of Cardinals was to turn to an outsider to sort out the insiders.
This is where fiscal conservatives ought to be paying attention, because Francis provides an object lesson in how to take on the bureaucrats and win. The story is told by John Allen in a fascinating piece for the Boston Globe:
“Pope Francis may embrace simplicity, but he’s hardly a simple man. The Jesuit pontiff is also an extraordinarily crafty politician, and a financial reform announced by the Vatican yesterday proves the point…
“The pope has created a new finance ministry to oversee all Vatican departments, especially those that handle money. It will prepare an annual budget and oversee detailed financial statements, addressing a long-standing complaint by cardinals from around the world – to wit, that they could never get a straight answer from the Vatican about how much money it has or what’s happening to it.”
On this side of the English Channel, these reforms might seem rather basic. However, not only do they represent a major improvement on what went on before, they also show how the bureaucratic status quo can be challenged in any situation.
First of all, existing power structures need to be disrupted if not dismantled altogether:
“…Francis has solved one chronic problem with money management in the Vatican, which is that heretofore it’s been entrusted at the leadership level almost entirely to clergy without any real formation in business management or finance. The new board including seven laity takes the place of a council created under Pope John Paul II composed of 15 cardinals.”
Secondly, Francis has acted in accordance with the American political adage that “personnel is policy”:
“The ministry, known as the Secretariat of the Economy, will report directly to the pope… As his first ‘finance minister,’ Francis tapped 72-year-old Cardinal George Pell of Sydney…”
The 6’3’’ Cardinal is a “former Australian Rules Football player who once seemed destined to go pro before entering the priesthood”:
“For those who know him, he’s like a linebacker in a cassock – a tough, no-nonsense guy not likely to be cowed by Vatican mandarins who resent the intrusion on their prerogatives.”
Thirdly, Francis recognises that there is no political change without culture change:
“Historically, the Vatican has been heavily conditioned by an Italian ethos in which many forms of corruption aren’t even perceived that way. Rigging competitive bidding procedures to benefit one’s friends, or lending a veneer of legitimacy to movements of money on behalf of fat-cat benefactors, are often seen as part of keeping things ‘in the family’…
“By making an Australian imbued with Anglo-Saxon notions of transparency and accountability his tip of the spear, Francis has communicated that a new day is dawning.”
For an example of how not to pursue reform, one need not look beyond our own shores. When David Cameron came to office, plans to overhaul the machinery of government were instantly dropped. It was reckoned that managing a Coalition would be complicated enough without reforming Whitehall at the same time.
Furthermore, after appointing some distinctly underpowered outsiders to oversee key policy programmes like the Big Society, the Prime Minister soon gave up and placed his faith in senior civil servants like Sir Jeremy Heywood instead. Thus a bureaucratic culture shaped by thirteen years of Labour government was left essentially unchallenged.
By the time David Cameron woke up to his mistake, more than two years had been wasted. And, even now, one has to wonder if he’s left it too late to rescue the situation.
It is said that the ‘Vatican thinks in centuries’ – nevertheless, the current Pope has shown a greater sense of timeliness than our current Prime Minister.