In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government by Matthew d'Ancona. "Inside Story" describes the book pretty accurately, with the strengths and weaknesses that implies. d'Ancona is apparently pretty much a part of the "social circle that became a government" and seems to have pretty good information on the detail of how things functioned within the first three years of the coalition. He's good on the relationships between ministers and advisors, in particular the vexed relationship between relatively liberal Iain Duncan Smith and the hardliner George Osborne.
Interestingly, Andrew Lansdale's wholesale reorganisation of the NHS seems to have come as a surprise to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, presented as a fait accompli that they had to reluctantly accept. I might have found that hard to believe except for the points made in the book below,, that the UK Prime Minister is peculiarly short of staff by international standards, with only a few advisors who can't really keep him informed. (I suspect the recent EU bill was a similar avoidable surprise.)
That highlights a couple of the weaknesses of the "Insider Account". d'Ancona doesn't really evaluate this government relative to other British and foreign governments: he just relates what happens. He also seems to share the ideology to the extent that it doesn't occur to him that their fundamental assumptions might be wrong (e.g. the standard Keynesian assumption that they might have actually harmed the cause of deficit reduction by cutting too much too soon).
Instead, he always presents the coalition sympathetically as struggling to strike a difficult compromises between the demands of the Lib Dems, of running a government, and of the Conservative Party base. But if you don't share the ideology, this looks a lot like a compromise between sanity and lunacy.
Overall, somewhat interesting to political obsessives, but no great surprises.
What I'm Reading 2
The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. This book got a lot of attention when it came out. It analyses in depth the biggest failures of British governments under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown; then draws general conclusions, making comparisons to foreign governments and successful British programmes.
Absolutely worth reading, though pretty horrifying if you would like to hold on to any optimism about Britain. It's all the more devastating for being absolutely calm and measured. It's not a partisan rant aimed at one party and offering hope for the other. It's not a libertarian screed complaining about government itself: they draw judicious comparisons to other nations where laws are pre-published to detect flaws, or genuinely bipartisan committees try to blunder-proof policies. The book even starts off with a list of successful government policies, which are used for comparison. However, they draw an overall picture of a system that is dysfunctional across multiple areas: from a Parliament that doesn't bother to scrutinize, irresponsible Ministers chasing advancement, to a degraded Civil Service short of skills and operational experience.
Here are some extracts from the final sections where they look at general causes of blunders in general.
Too much haste and too little deliberation are a problem:
British politicians in general have a curious habit of functioning in crisis mode - at high speed and in an agitated state - even when no crisis exists. They seem to enjoy it. It seems to give many of them a high...Lack of knowledge is a problem:
Comparing the blunders committed in haste by activist ministers with the government successes listed in Chapter 2 is instructive. Many of the most enduring successes achieved by postwar governments had quite long gestation periods. The legislation authorising the creation of green belts was enacted in 1947, but green belts began to be created on a large scale only in the mid-1950s. The Clean Air Act lagged several years behind London's killer smog of 1953. Both the breathalyser and the compulsory wearing of seat belts arrived only slowly on the scene. It took more than a decade for the policy of selling council houses to their tenants to be fully bedded down. The ban on smoking in public places was also slow in coming.
Intriguingly - and contrary to received wisdom - Margaret Thatcher, although undoubtedly an activist, was never, until towards the very end, a woman in a hurry. On the contrary, she was content to take her time in connection with almost every important domestic matter. Although she took office in 1979, her ministers did not initiate a comprehensive overhaul of trade-union law until 1982. Privatisation, although something she always favoured in principle, did not become a central or even peripheral element of her government's policy until she was well into her second term. Similarly, when she was first confronted with the prospect of a miners' strike, she quickly backed off; but she then took steps to ensure that the next time the miners threatened to strike she would be in a position to stand firm.
Activist ministers can certainly congratulate themselves in one regard. They have made a substantial contribution in recent decades to expanding the sheer physical volume of the statute book. Although the number of individual Acts passed by parliament has not increased significantly in recent decades, the total number of pages of new legislation certainly has - from an average of 1645 pages a year during the 1980s, to 1803 pages during the 1990s to 2804 pages during the 2000s, an increase of 70 per cent over the three decades. The number of pages of new secondary legislation, in the form of statutory instruments, has also ballooned - from an average of 6644 pages during the 1980s, to 8705 during the 1990s to 10,421 during the 2000s, an increase of 36 per cent.
No feature of the blunders we have studied stands out more prominently - or more frequently - than the divorce between policymaking and implementation and, in human terms, between those who made policies and those charged with implementing them...Rapid turnover of ministers and Civil Servants doesn't help:
[On the Child Support Agency]. The ministers and officials in the Treasury who, along with the prime minister, insisted on the principal features of the new policy, with its heavy emphasis on revenue-raising rather than child welfare, were devoid of any relevant experience or expertise. For all their Whitehall clout, they were innocents in practical terms; they had no idea what they were doing. In any case, because the Treasury's policy would be administered by ministers and officials in another government department, no Treasury minister or official would ever bear any responsibility if things eventually went wrong. Officials in the Child Support Agency were thus landed with a complicated set of rules to administer, almost zero discretion in administering them and tens of thousands of exceedingly angry customers. Those involved at the top of the DSS were conscious that the policy they had devised would have been difficult to implement in any case, but the policy with which they were saddled simply could not be implemented. And it was not...
A striking feature of the policymaking processes that culminated in the blunders described in this book is that "the right people" were often not in the room and that neither the prime minister nor anyone else at the centre possessed both the knowledge and the clout " to challenge propositions and argue". Nigel Lawson challenged the poll-tax proposition but was seldom in the room, and no one in Margaret Thatcher's entourage felt it was his or her responsibility to argue the anti case, if only to act as devil's advocate. Gordon Brown was a law unto himself , and, quite apart from the delicate balance of political power between the two, Blair was seldom sufficiently well briefed to be able to challenge Brown's numerous policy propositions on purely intellectual and substantive grounds.
The UK is an outlier in this regard. In Britain, holders of important portfolios come and go; in most other countries, they come and stay, at least for a while. Cross-national comparisons consistently show that ministers in other countries remain in office - and, more particularly, remain in the same office - for considerably longer periods than their opposite numbers in Britain. Among the few countries with higher rates of turnover are France and Italy. 1 The contrast between Britain and Germany, in particular, is stark. Reshuffles in Britain occur more or less annually. In Germany there have been only about half a dozen large-scale cabinet reshuffles in the entire history of the Federal Republic...Lack of good management:
Furthermore, ministers are not the only ones who move around. No one seems to know how often senior civil servants, apart from permanent secretaries, move from one department to another or between unrelated or only loosely related posts within the same department; but, if it is "ridiculous" to rotate ministers "really quickly" , as the anonymous minister claimed, then the same must be true of rotating officials rapidly, especially as ministers inevitably rely heavily on those same officials. If both ministers and officials are rapidly rotating at the same time and in relation to one another, the results are almost certain to be suboptimal . When it was put to one cabinet minister that he must know less about the work of his department than the civil servants who worked under him, he replied vehemently that the opposite was true: he had not been in the department long and might not know much, but his civil servants endlessly came and went and knew even less than he did. Another minister complained, in connection with a specific project, that he had had six officials working on it under him in the course of two years and that only one of them had hung around long enough to be able to master the details of it; and, he added soulfully, as soon as that one official had succeeded in mastering the relevant details, he had sought and won promotion to a post in another department.
One strange feature of several of the blunders we have studied is that, although they had all of the characteristics of ambitious and complex projects, they appear never to have been thought of in those terms - as "projects". The ministers and officials involved treated them as though they were somehow a normal part of the ongoing business of government; and, even when individual projects were thought of as projects, they were not professionally managed as such. For example, the enormously complicated task of establishing the Child Support Agency - that is, of giving practical effect to the Major government's highly innovative child-maintenance policies - was initially put in the hands of someone recruited from the voluntary sector who lacked any high-level management experience. Similarly, having devised individual learning accounts without involving knowledgeable outsiders in their design, ministers and officials simply handed over the task of administering them to a private IT firm. It did not occur to them that the creation of independent learning accounts was a major project, one that needed to be carefully managed in close co-operation with the IT firm...Problems in the Civil Service:
The upgrading of the London underground was a "project" if ever there was one; but in this case there was not even a nominal project manager. It is clear from the evidence that neither Gordon Brown nor John Prescott conceived of the enterprise as a project, one which, precisely because it was a project and a very large one at that, would need to be continuously and aggressively managed. They saw their public-private partnership solely as a highly desirable financial and accounting instrument. Their focus was on money and the accounts, notably the government's balance sheet, not on outcomes. Management, they seemed to think, could be left to look after itself. But, while some of the day-to-day and month-to-month management was in the hands of London Underground, some was in the hands of Metronet (which was notoriously badly managed), some was in the hands of Tube Lines (which was better managed), and much of it was in the hands of the many , many firms to which Metronet and Tube Lines chose to let contracts. Because so many organisations were in charge, none of them was.
In the UK, the possibility of serious operational disconnect occurring may actually have been institutionalised by the creation, beginning in the late 1980s, of executive agencies, what are sometimes called Next Steps agencies. 5 The idea was, and still is, to retain policymaking in the hands of senior Whitehall civil servants but to delegate responsibility for the implementation of whatever policy has been decided upon to these semi-autonomous agencies. The heads of the agencies in question are supposed to be told in broad terms by their ministerial and official masters what to do and then to be left largely free to get on with doing it. Professionalism, flexibility and efficiency are supposed to be maximised . Often they are, but the obvious risk is that thinking and doing may become detached, with policymakers relying on assurances given by agency heads and failing themselves to address practical issues of doability. That undoubtedly happened in the case of the English farmers fiasco, with Defra ministers and civil servants simply, but misguidedly, accepting the head of the Rural Payments Agency's assurances that he and his staff could deliver the most complicated payments scheme on offer...MPS could scrutinize legisation better:
Our study of blunders suggests that officials, at least in many government departments and in many policy areas, have become remarkably reluctant to speak truth to power. They do not want to speak largely because they believe power does not want to listen. Objection is construed as obstruction. Again and again in our interviews, former ministers as well as retired civil servants commented on the fact that, even when officials had harboured serious reservations about ministers' latest bright ideas, they had failed openly to express their reservations...
Another official in the same department added that there was a pervasive feeling that civil servants had to do everything they could to prove that they could be trusted by New Labour ministers: "We wanted to avoid a Sir Humphrey image. We became afraid to say 'No, Minister'."...
One career civil servant, whose department reckoned he "had earned his spurs" as a negotiator with IT suppliers, complained that his superiors had, in effect, given up on their own ability to negotiate and manage IT contracts and had concluded that the only way forward was to outsource. Before that, the department's systems had been developed mostly "in-house, with some external consultancy support" - and they had usually worked. The effect of relying wholly on outside lawyers and consultants, in his view, was that officials within the department ceased to be able to act as "intelligent customers". In turn, that meant that officials were not able to brief and, if need be, to warn their ministers. Outsourcing so comprehensively had, he believed, "added an extra layer of complexity" to the whole contracting and management process. The department had been "left vulnerable" and had "lost its ability to scrutinise". Another interviewee, in a different context, referred to what he called "the de-professionalisation of the civil service". Either because not enough civil servants were up to the job of supervising contract negotiations and drafting contracts, or because ministers believed they were not up to it, huge amounts of work were being subcontracted to exceedingly expensive law practices and consultancy firms.
Germany... has a parliamentary system not unlike the UK's and a parliament, the Bundestag, that is almost as government- and party-dominated as the parliament at Westminster. Despite the similarities, the experience of the Bundestag shows clearly that a parliament in which almost all bills are introduced by the government and in which the political parties and their whips are at least as powerful as those in the UK can nevertheless enact legislation that is far from being "hastily considered and badly drafted"...Ministers aren't accountable:
Unlike the UK's public bill committees , the legislative committees in Germany resemble in composition, and function in the style of, Britain's select committees. They are, in effect, "specialized parliaments within parliament", and their members typically know a good deal about the subject matter of the bills that come before them. The committee chairs, who may be members of the opposition, seek to promote agreement and facilitate progress rather than being studiously neutral. Government ministers and whips are not present, but civil servants and members of the committees' staff are. The committees themselves collect evidence and, if they want to, hold hearings. They usually confer in private , and their style of discourse is deliberately conversational rather than confrontational. Perhaps most important of all, the members of the Bundestag's committees see themselves as legislators, as actual law-makers. Their job as they see it is to improve legislation, not either to rubber-stamp it or obstruct it. Government-sponsored bills are, of course , almost always passed by parliament in the end, but only after they have been subjected to rigorous and normally quite non-partisan and dispassionate scrutiny. Moreover, in this regard Germany is far from being an outlier. The parliaments of the Netherlands and the Nordic countries function in much the same way. What may come as a surprise to many people in England is to learn that the legislatures of Scotland and Wales also function in much the same way...
It is hard to imagine many of the blunders described in this book - the poll tax, the original Child Support Act, individual learning accounts, tax credits, the setting up of the agency for recovering criminals' assets - having been perpetrated with the backing of statutes if those statutes had been subjected to the kind of detailed and relatively non-partisan parliamentary scrutiny that is normal in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Scotland and many other parliamentary democracies...
A striking aspect of the blunders we studied was how few of them had, or needed to have, a party-political dimension. A banded local property tax would probably have been acceptable to Labour from the beginning; the fight over the poll tax was quite unnecessary. Neither party actually willed the mis-selling of pensions, and Labour was never adamant in its opposition to the principle of personal pensions. The Child Support Agency was set up, as we saw, with Labour's full support. Both parties welcomed Britain's entry into the ERM enthusiastically, and both broadly supported the principle of holding a great national exhibition at the time of the millennium. The Conservatives did not object to individual learning accounts, and did not object strenuously to the idea of tax credits. The setting up of the Assets Recovery Agency had all-party support, and such debate as occurred over the wisdom of adopting the most ambitious method for making single EU payments to English farmers was never along party lines...
The almost total lack of ministerial accountability in the strong sense - of ministers being held to account for their actions and being penalised for their more egregious misjudgements and errors - is one of the most striking features of the British system of government. Or, rather, it would be striking if only more people were aware of it. The ancient doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is breached far more often than it is honoured. The notion of a strong chain of responsibility linking officials via ministers to parliament, with ministers being held personally responsible for their blunders and suffering in consequence, bears no resemblance to reality...The Prime Minister's office isn't much use in spotting problems.
Ministers are under constant pressure. They are shot at all the time. They spend a lot of their time dodging bullets, from the media as well as from opposition MPs and sometimes their own backbenchers. But they are seldom seriously wounded and almost never killed by the bullets; and, if they are killed politically, it is almost always as a result of gaffes and personal failures, not as a result of policy failures. Ministers' mistakes, however serious, almost never catch up with them.
By international standards, the British prime minister also has strictly limited staff resources. There are not many people , and certainly not many policy experts and administrators, who are his people, not anybody else's, and who work closely with him. The British prime minister, of course, is not entirely alone on the front line, but by international standards he or she very nearly is. Almost all the blunders we studied in detail exhibited some combination of, on the one hand, the fragmented departmentalism just described and, on the other, a Number 10 whose interventions were almost invariably sporadic and occasionally completely ineffectual...What I'm Reading 3
The prime minister's Policy Unit, as it has existed in recent years, has been very small - still with only seven or eight members - and has been overwhelmingly occupied with day-to-day matters and policy issues of immediate concern to the prime minister...
Certainly the size of the British prime minister's staff - those individuals with significant political clout who work directly to and with him or her - is minuscule by international standards. The governments of all other Westminster-model countries have what amount to prime ministers' departments. Canada has its Privy Council Office, Australia its Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand its department with the same name (but with the emphasis in both cases on the Prime Minister rather than the Cabinet). The heads of government of almost all European countries have more robust staff support than prime ministers in the UK... our study of blunders suggests that, far from the UK prime minister being too strong and presidential, he or she may in reality often be too weak to be able to ride herd, as the Americans say, on the activities of warring departments and impetuous ministers...
All of these episodes raise obvious questions about the curious mix that exists in the British system between departmentalism - inevitable in any large bureaucratic organisation - and a "centre" that is, in fact, only sporadically centripetal. For all the fashionable talk of "prime-ministerial power" and "presidentialism", the truth is that, looked at close up, British government turns out to be more chaotic than dictatorial. Neither the prime minister nor any other powerful institution at or very near the centre of government is capable in practice of checking and balancing, let alone controlling and directing, much of what goes on elsewhere.
5 Days in May by Andrew Adonis. Short book by a senior Labour Party minister about the 2010 negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats about forming a possible coalition government. Most of it was written shortly afterwards, but a couple of chapters at the end were written three years into the Coaliton with a bit more perspective.
In retrospect, the negotiations were doomed from the start. Labour had fewer seats than the Conservatives. Adonis and Gordon Brown were convinced that "the numbers" could be made to work, but this seems to mean "barely surviving a confidence vote on heroic assumptions that there would be no rebels and some minor parties would never dare put the Tories in whatever they were offered". Also David Cameron and Nick Clegg had very similar backgrounds and ideologies as well as personal sympathy.
One fascinating revelation is that while the Lib Dems were in theory like Labour committed to a "slow" deficit reduction of halving the deficit in the next parliamentary term, their terms of negotiation with Labour insisted non-negotiably on a much faster pace. This tends to bear out those of use who are skeptical about what happens in secret coalition negotiations. Rather than fighting to preserve as much as their manifesto as possible, the Lib Dems were fighting to overturn the parts of their manifesto that the leadership clique didn't like.
Also interesting are Adonis' comments, as an experienced minister, on the Lib Dems eventual settlement with the Tories. He's astonished that they didn't insist on senior Cabinet posts which would have given them real power, instead settling for minor posts shadowed by hostile Tories.
One of Labour's key offers was a very early AV referendum, pencilled in for November that year, to take advantage of honeymoon effects and not let it be used as a referendum on a potentially unpopular government. Labour also guaranteed that they would campaign for a Yes vote.
It does seem that given what really happened: losing a much later referendum, losing on Lords reform; as a party the Lib Dems would have been much better off with Labour. It even turns out that the actual reduction in the deficit is much closer to the Labour/Lib Dem plans (possibly due to that pesky Mr Keynes).
Overall, an interesting account of hands-on political negotiations. Won't be of much interest if you're not into UK Parliamentary politics though.
What I'm Watching
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Pretty much as you'd expect if you've seen the first one. Some nice visuals, some decent scenes, and it's nice to see Middle-Earth again. Also too long and struggles to reconcile the portentous tone of LOTR with the much lighter Hobbit.
What I'm Watching
Singing in the Rain. Classic musical, some very lavish numbers, good if you like musicals.
What I'm Watching
Saw The Hunger Games on TV. I haven't read the books. Film was better than I expected: solid and well paced, though not desperately original.
Saw a Lacemakers exhibition in a local space: some nice artworks either made of, or loosely inspired by lace. Some clever, colourful works.
Citizens have unrealistic expectations because politicians have allowed them to think that the axe will fall on someone else. Depending on party ideology, those bearing the brunt of the cuts will be lazy welfare claimants, migrant benefit tourists, underworked public servants, over-bonused bankers or the rich. No-one is telling Mr and Mrs Middle-Income that they are going to have to pay more tax and/or see much more drastic public spending cuts.
Politics. Feminism is in danger of becoming toxic. The turn away from politics. How a $47 Shrimp Treadmill Became a $3-Million Political Plaything. Zero-Hours Academics: "According to London Met, casualisation in higher education isn’t a problem because everybody does it; according to the UCEA, it isn’t a problem because it isn’t really happening." Five questions for anyone who says “it's not racist to talk about immigration” .
|< Leaving work. | It's not much fun at the top. >|