Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in different non-executive public service jobs, and so have experience of two interfaces. One is between politics and non-political public service decisions, all at the technocratic end in my case. The other is between non-executive and executive action, as all of the non-exec roles have obviously relied on a full time staff to implement decisions.
Almost all of the people I’ve come across in all of these categories have felt a strong sense of public service. But it is extremely difficult going from a political choice validated (more or less) by accountability to voters to the effective implementation of those choices with accountability that is often not clear although often addressed by ‘transparency’. These categories of actors have different time scales – from the electoral cycle to the life-long career – and constraints – from media and electoral demands to the risk of judicial review. (The piggy in the middle position is not the most comfortable, either!) As the Duke of Wellington famously said of his first cabinet meeting, “An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.” (Or as one of my favourite t-shirts, long since gone, put it: “Be reasonable. Do it my way.”)
Recently I read [amazon_link id=”1780742665″ target=”_blank” ]The Blunders of Our Governments[/amazon_link] by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, an excellent and very readable account of many specific failures, along with an analysis of why failure occurs so often. They attribute chaotic government (this is in the UK) to a mixture of human errors and system errors.
[amazon_image id=”1780742665″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Blunders of Our Governments[/amazon_image]
Now I’m half way through a proof copy of [amazon_link id=”0691161623″ target=”_blank” ]Why Government Fails so Often and How It Can Do Better[/amazon_link] by Peter Schuck. (I’ll review it in April when it’s officially published.) This is a US-focused book, more academic in tone. Its analysis overlaps with King and Crewe. Like them, Schuck goes on to suggest some improvements that would ameliorate the dysfunctionality of government – and my goodness, the US system looks massively dysfunctional to a foreigner like me.
[amazon_image id=”0691161623″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better[/amazon_image]
The two books together are making me wonder what the prospects are for making government truly effective given our starting point, namely the accumulation of bad policies like encrusted barnacles making an old ship impossible to sail. A lot of economists are pinning their hopes on evidence-based policy, but this assumes that Mr Spock-style rationality will cut through the nexus of many people taking varied decisions for different reasons.
It’s better than not having the evidence base, but we economists need to pay more careful attention to the political economy issues (and, as I’ve argued before in last year’s Pro Bono Economics lecture, make sure we include ourselves in the analysis.)
When on an Army General Staff when the GOC and G1 had agreed what was to be done, it was done with my job being to get the orders out. A handful of us would move 15,000 men and all they had at one hours notice. It worked very well. Later in the public sector it was a frustrating business. Even when it was quite clear what had to be done the politicians were likely to run away, defer decisions until a real crisis occurred or simply mess up any implementation. Apparently, the Duke and Earl Grey used the same wine merchants. When I followed The Dukes line of march in the Peninsula War in the mid 70’s I realised what an astonishing logistical and military achievement it was. Modern management it wasn’t, it was attention to detail, clarity of instruction, proper training and forage, food and water.
Apropos of which, this by Alan Johnson on the post in World War I is fascinating: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25934407?
Noah Smith has a blog article on why American government is so awful: