Opinion

The New Darien II: Part Three – before surrender

by | 14 Dec 2023

Having seen the source of the problems of waste and incompetence, how do we solve them?

The mood music leading up to this budget has all been incredibly doomy. In the preceding two articles I’ve tried to explain why the doom is merited. But I’m doing it to offer a different way out of the doom. I’m trying to show how much of this doom is optional.

The doom is not without purpose; as we’ve seen recently, Scotland’s establishment are seeking to use multiple problems-going-on-crises in Scotland’s public services as a battering ram to introduce even more privatisation, co-payment and rationing.

At the other side are ‘progressives’ who want tax rises. This is something of a trap; Scotland’s tax powers are almost designed to gain the minimum return for the maximum pain because the powers are so narrow. That doesn’t mean they can’t be used, but the best bet would have been to raise income through the Council Tax, the opposite of what they’ve done. We also need to hit large landowners whose assets are massively under taxed.

But we need to change how we do government if we want to get more out of our tax spend. And we should absolutely want more out of our tax spend; wastefulness is not progressive and if people do not believe their tax is properly spent, it reduces consent both for tax and for public services.

Just like the list of problems in the last article wasn’t comprehensive, so the list of solutions that follows isn’t comprehensive. But this is an agenda which would start to free up the enormous waste I’ve identified and start to turn the corner in our public services.

Start counting

In the last decade, government statistics in Scotland have turned into a governmental propaganda machine. This happens here but not in the UK because at the UK level it is an independent agency not directly answerable to Ministers (the Office for National Statistics) which compiles the stats. They often produce statistics which embarrass government.

In Scotland statistics are produced largely by people that Ministers can fire. It is why we so often get ‘corrections’ after data has been rushed out for political purposes. We need to find out where money is going and what it is being spent on a lot better than we currently do, and historical data needs to be more accessible. I spent an awful lot of time in preparing this trying to find longer timeline for things like numbers of frontline workers and it is far, far too hard to get hold of.

We need an independent statistics agency for Scotland which produces comprehensive data to help us judge what is being done with our money. That it would prove embarrassing to politicians sometimes is not a flaw in the concept…

No hiding place

As we all know, the Scottish Government is the most secretive government in the UK, the worst for providing legally-require Freedom of Information responses and the one that is most likely to take you to court to prevent you finding things out. We need to stop this.

The Scottish Government has (disgracefully but predictably) concluded that it will do not a thing to strengthen Freedom of Information legislation. This is an intolerable situation – the body which wants to be secret has the power to prevent anti-secrecy. We need a much, much stronger FoI regime and it must cover all government expenditure wherever it goes.

We must hammer governments that obstruct legitimate FoI requests. The problem is Scotland’s ‘judge, jury and executioner’ role for its government/bureaucrat super-structure which empowers people to cover up their misdeeds. So we need to get out of that place…

The ideology of the rich and powerful is not the only one available when it comes to governing a country

People scrutiny

…which means we need to find some way to adjudicate on these issues which maintains democracy but takes the decisions out of the hands of the political elite alone. There are a number of elaborate ways to do this, the worst of which would be an elected second chamber of the Parliament in which the same parties get voted in to cover up the same shit that the first chamber is already covering up.

(Actually no, the worse way to do this is a ‘panel of the great and good’ to make judgements on these things since that is appointed by government and so ends up being made up of the elite it is supposed to regulate – and here we go again.)

I strongly favour one catch-all way to do this, which is by creating a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament which is selected by sortition. That means 100 members of the public are selected at random but in a way that means they reflect the whole of Scottish society accurately (so weighted for age, sex, geography, income and so on).

The Citizens’ Assembly would then be supported by a full team of advisers and lawyers working only for them, and all responsibility for scrutiny of government procedures would be transferred there. Be clear what I’m saying; setting the Scottish Parliament’s rules for holding government to account would be taken entirely out of the hands of elected politicians.

It is the Citizen’s Assembly which would decide on FoI legislation and would adjudicate (with the Information Commissioner) on when exemptions are appropriate. That means that Freedom of Information would cover what the public thinks it should cover, not what the politicians think it should cover.

But that’s not all a Citizens’ Assembly does…

Glue shut the revolving doors

There should be a zero-tolerance policy towards someone cashing in on their knowledge of the public sector from having worked in the public sector. Working for a public service provides you with insider knowledge based on a salary provided to you by the public. It is the public interest which should govern your every action.

Which means that the knowledge you have built up only because of the willingness of taxpayers to fund you to work on their behalf is not yours. They paid for your knowledge and you simply should not be allowed to use that knowledge against them.

No government minister or public sector official should be allowed anywhere near a new job which has any form of a whiff of any kind of potential conflict of interest. Every appointment for at least five years after leaving office or resigning or retiring from a job should automatically be scrutinised by the Citizens’ Assembly. If they think there is a risk of a conflict of interests, it should be prevented.

And that includes Board positions or any other form of appointment which is remunerated in any way. You took the most generous pension provision in the world of employment; you don’t get to cash in at the expense of the public afterwards. Just get that into your head early on and start behaving accordingly.

Choosing the top table

Likewise, the in-patronage should be closely monitored too. At the moment the right to govern Scotland through its many unelected boards, advisory bodies and agencies is purely in the gift of a politician. This creates yet more conflicts of interest as the powerful get to bring their ideological preferences directly into government.

Let’s just knock that on the head. Let’s have a Citizens’ Assembly advertise vacancies and select who gets the places. The ideology of the rich and powerful is not the only one available when it comes to governing a country. This changes the monolithic assumption that targets-and-performance-indicators are humanity’s greatest achievement.

Close down unfair access

If the general public were asked what level of corporate infiltration of government was the right amount, the answer would not be high. So let’s give a Citizens’ Assembly scrutiny of senior secondments into government and give it the power and the information to monitor the interactions of commercial interests and government.

To do this it would need to take over responsibility for the Lobbying Register – because someone should… It needs to be greatly strengthened and better policed and no-one should be able to lobby without a clear, detailed track record

We’ve been talking about a ‘bonfire of quangos’ for 30 years because such a conflagration is greatly merited – but the empire always strikes back and protects itself

Reverse management culture

OK, so far all we’ve done is create the conditions that would limit the internal incompetence-tinted largesse of Scotland’s senior public sector managers. Nothing has actually changed so far because of the above proposal other than the conditions that lead to the problems we have.

The big win for all of us is to change management culture. The crushing, condescending approach we take puts experts on a leash held by non-expert managers, bringing with it the whole wasteful culture. There is a way out of this.

The alternative to having some HR graduate peering over the shoulder of a cancer surgeon all day is to trust staff. I know this sounds insane – why would anyone trust someone who has dedicated their life to public service with no likelihood of a life of corporate riches in retirement?

It isn’t insane. In other countries they don’t do what we do. There are systems of self-management. Rather than everyone working alone towards performance indicators, people work in small teams and everyone in the team is responsible for the output of the whole team. If a team is making mistakes it reflects badly on all members of the team, so they are incentivised to stop making mistakes.

This works. It not only takes the vast majority of the monitoring of performance by managers out of the system, it empowers frontline workers to make their own decisions – to ‘step forward and step up’. The role of managers is to keep an eye out for any reason to be seriously concerned about a team and, otherwise, to give them what they need to do their job, and to back them up when they need it.

Bonfire of paperwork

Along with this can come a ‘bonfire of paperwork’. A local authority in England replaced a 14-page risk assessment form for social work interventions with a sentence: “don’t break the law, don’t blow the budget, do no harm’. It freed up lots of staff time overnight and worked perfectly well for obvious reasons (which is that no-one was trying to do a bad job or put people at risk in the first place).

We assume that a paper trail is necessary for later on when guilt has to be ascribed (but as low down the food chain as possible). This is a mindset we’re stuck in because of managerialism. It just isn’t true,


Bonfire of agencies

And now you’ll realise we just don’t need all those agencies. We’ve been talking about a ‘bonfire of quangos’ for 30 years because such a conflagration is greatly merited. But the empire always strikes back and protects itself.

In Part Two I explained how little the world would lose if the agency known as ‘The Promise’ simply disappeared. I could say the same of another dozen off the top of my head. Outsourcing activity from the core civil service into these agencies was a way of bypassing scrutiny and accountability and to create loopholes that let people stuff their pockets with more than they could get away with in the civil service.

So end them and either devolve the responsibility to local authorities or take it into government where it can be properly scrutinised and where it can abide by strict rules.

No more private sector policy development

There is now almost no government policy which is not shaped directly by one of the four big accountancy firms, the job given to them by senior civil servants (see all the conflicts of interest above).

But these firms actively benefit from government inefficiency as it is their clients who get the wasted money in their bank accounts. Make it stop. Set up a public sector consultancy and ban all outsourcing of policy development for good.

Participatory budgeting

There is so much more I want to add here but this has become far too long already. So finally, open up the budget process so that we don’t have the situation where Ministers are running around making policy on the hoof before costing it.

I don’t favour an Office of Budget Responsibility (I want a stronger Audit Scotland), but I do favour rules which punish a politician for announcing something before its feasibility and cost have been accurately assessed. A full process of participatory budgeting would provide the space for that.

I’d even go so far as to extend the Ministerial Code to prevent making totally uncosted promises in public. It is a kind of lie, a kind of dishonesty, the promise to do something you don’t even know if you can do (National Energy Company, eh?). Fine for elections, not for government. Make policy properly, competently and not just based on today’s headlines.

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