Friday 7 May 2010

Domesday 2.0

Well that's all sorted then. Not. But we do, at least, have a big issue to discuss -- electoral reform.Unfortunately it is not the right one. Not right now anyway. Don't get me wrong I am broadly in favour of some sort of PR system. Not evangelically like the Lib Dems and -- now conveniently -- Labour. Even with its faults though PR it is still the least worst system. The real trouble for me is that it is a process issue, it is about how we choose governments not what governments actually do. I just can't get as excited about process as I can about policy and policy implementation. Probably my fault.

Anyway back to the big issue. The one we are still not discussing -- how we manage public finances -- the one all the three parties tried to skirt. It is more than a fiscal question, as I mentioned before this week, we need to be asking much more basic questions about what the state sector is for. A generation ago we could probably have answered this, even if we argued about which areas of activity should be in or out of the public sphere. Broadly speaking we had administrators, service practitioners like teachers, nurses or toilet attendants and those employed in the nationalised industries in our then "mixed" economy.

We still have teachers and nurses of course. But we have privatised or closed the mines, railways, car factories, in fact virtually all of the public side of the old mixed economy. You have to look very hard to find someone minding a public lavatory these days and the computer revolution is supposed to have automated much of the administration. Why then is the public sector still roughly the same size? It has clearly changed its role but it has undergone this change well out of view of the people at large. Did anyone ask us if we wanted to exchange park keepers for press officers, bus conductors for innovation managers, miners for leadership excellence champions? Anyone from outside who deals with the public sector will be able to regale you with tales of ridiculous non-jobs and then a millefeuille of managers administering them.  Anyone inside the public sector will tell you -- if they are being honest -- of waste and inefficiency, they will describe managerialism gone mad. Neither insiders nor outsiders can really define what so much of this is for, other than self-perpetuation. Looking back nationalised miners didn't dig the cheapest coal, British Leyland workers didn't make the world's best cars but at least they were doing something, they even created some wealth.

I am not being party political. Labour and Conservative have been equally guilty of encouraging or allowing this to happen.  It is nothing new. Bureaucracies have been creating work for themselves since human civilisation began. But our situation is new. Now we have to make cuts so we might as well make the right ones and yet we still haven't stopped to think properly what we are spending our £600 billion plus on every year. Spending reviews just do not cut it. They are run by insiders. Efficiency savings tend to create more waste and further layers of administration. The enormous state apparatus of measurement and targeting distorts every service it touches. So what do we do?

I propose a new Domesday exercise. A millennium after William of Normandy produced his grand and detailed report of the land he had conquered, I think we need a similar exercise.This time conducted on the public sector. A full, transparent and independent Domesday 2.0 survey of our public realm. A proper picture. Then we can start making our decisions about what we need, what we want and what we can get rid of.

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