When it comes to delivery the UK Civil Service is ranked 4th overall (InCiSE). But it does not feel like we have good governance. Democratic Audit identifies "unprecedented declines in the core institutions of the UK’s democratic system, particularly at the centre" (Democratic Audit 2). In many ways the UK is not as good as it likes to think.
Instead of engaging with its citizens the state now habitually sells assets and outsources or hives off services. With few exceptions these go to (usually large) private organisations. Even though they are running public services, commercial confidentiality throws a veil over transparency and hinders accountability. Public Services have a direct bearing on our lives. If they go wrong we suffer, our experience of the service is degraded.
Good governance is simply about management processes and accountability. When we insulate or remove services from users (who are citizens) by creating agencies, or by outsourcing, when we have cursory oversight there is no clear accountability. Management failings come in many guises: short term thinking, lack of investment, over-charging, loss of continuity because of management career hopping, hubris and the abouse of the right to manage, bullying, laziness, lack of direction, abuse of position power, group think, the list could go on an on. These are ever present, they are not selective they can occur in both the private and public sectors. Our current political economy does little to combat them, instead it provides a huge space in which they can thrive.
Not as good as we think we are
The sources above, that give the UK a civil service a high score intentionally have a narrow technical focus - they are looking at the managerial processes of what is left, and they are, understandably, only look at things are as they are. In this chapter I am deliberately going to pick some low key examples to illustrate just how pervasive and insidious the degradation of public accountability has become.
Before I do that here are just three justifications for the statement that we are not as good as we like to think;
- Education; we now have 50% of students going to university: "For England, a further concern is that young adults perform no better than older ones. So although adults approaching retirement age (55-65 year-olds) in England compare reasonably well with their counterparts in other countries, younger people are lagging badly behind (see Figure 1). Other things being equal (including migration) this means that in time the basic skills of the English labour force could fall further behind those of other countries. In many countries rising education attainment has driven better basic skills. But while in England many young people are more likely than their parents’ generation to continue to further and higher education, too many still have weak basic skills." (OECD Skills Report)
- Health; we pride ourselves on the NHS, and it scores very highly in many, except outcomes. "The UK’s NHS performs worse than the average in the treatment of 8 out of the 12 most common causes of death, including deaths within 30 days of having a heart attack and within five years of being diagnosed with breast cancer, rectal cancer, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer, despite narrowing the gap in recent years." (Nuffield Trust Assessment)
- Services; If you are benefit claimant or fall foul of nationality legislation you will experience at first hand some callous and inflexible aspect of the state. The inflexibility of process does not allow, even sympathetic staff, any latitude (Note: Staff Discretion). In the current administration you are not treated like a citizen. Most people who are in work and doing OK just don't get it and the narrative of scroungers is relentless. There is a something like folk memory of a more generous system that no longer exists. I don't think most people understand what is being done in their name. We only notice it when we collide with it, volunteer in a Food Bank or go to see a film like I Daniel Blake.
These types of problems are not simply about funding, there will always be a debate about how much is enough, nor can they be fixed by winning an election to deliver top down (do it to you) change, a Ministerial power seeker on a mission with less than 50% electoral support, can wreak plenty of havoc. A good minister with expertise may not last long enough to do anything and turnover is real problem (Being a Minister)
Devolution is a positive development and there have been some positive developments (Democratic Audit). In government generally there is much more information available within a few clicks thanks to the governments use of IT. I have been able to use it to make this assessment.
If we step back and look at the system as a whole we can see the decline in democracy and accountability in a number of trends. These are ongoing centralisation, outsourcing and the hiving off of services. The bonfire of the quangos may have been announced (Note: Bonfire of the Quangos) but its successors can be just as bad.
The trends are;
Creeping centralisation and the removal of power from local government, a long term trend with only Scottish and Welsh devolution going in the other direction
Direct control being replaced with outsourcing. The idea is that this will improve efficiency and effectiveness but it frequently fails because monitoring changes to contract compliance which is very different - contracts can be gamed, all business sales lead with low bids and make profits from add ons. In this setting targets can have perverse effects for the public use and quality of service as we say with the number of claims the have to be rejected to meet targets.
Hiving off government (that is executive) responsibilities to arms length organisations such as trusts and agencies. These are still paid for out of the public purse but the oversight is variable, perhaps as little as a bi-annual ministerial review, the chairmanships and other appointment become patronage to be handed out.
These trends are on top of cuts. Cuts mean the people in public life become complicit in lowering wages which in turn adds to the in-work benefits bill. There is no doubt that many (neo-liberals) regard the reduction of the state as an end in itself, the accompaniment of deregulation. Inevitably this reduces the civic space, it's perverse effect is to open the way to greed and provide a hiding place for poor service delivery.
Lets take a look at the public vs private debate which I think misses the point entirely;
Private; I was in the private sector for my entire working life, the very idea that the private sector can deliver better than the public sector I find laughable. As an employee, and on-assignment consultant I witness at first hand what is routine in the private sector. In competitive business the drive for profit means an endless concentration on cost cutting, making do with as little as possible - not something I want in my public services. In businesses with dominant possitions the term used was "fat and happy" they were often slow and unresponsive, waste was high - again not something I want in my public services.
In addition to that there are issues of scale, most of what the private sector does is dwarfed by the scale of public services. Interestingly the reverse of this has some truth, business experience would not easily transfer into being a Minister (Being a Minister op.cit.)
Public; I am sure some Public Works Departments were not efficient, what I also believe is that they could not compete against lower wages and poorer benefits. TUPE protections run out. Our elected councillors (obliged to take the lowest tender) are made complicit in the low wage economy. The public still picks up a larger bill because we now have a huge amount of spending on in work benefits.
Service Delivery is what matters and how it is delivered is simply a matter of managing the process with accountability to the user (that would be us, citizens). It always has been about that and always will be. I don't care if the dustbins are emptied by a private company if its employment practices and wages are fair and the owner makes what Schumacker called a right livelihood. I'd much rather it be a small local co-operative than a big provider, that would be so much better for the local economy. I'm also sure we have to build into requirements, at the tendering stage to specify the level of profit it is legitimate to take from running the service. We need to partner with public service suppliers in much the same way Japanse firms do with their suppliers (Leeds Procurement).
To illustrate exactly how undemocratic and vulnerable to poor governance we have become, here are the two low key but fairly detailed descriptions. These are based on both public data and personal experience (Note: Information on Public Bodies)