We must fight back against stupid paperwork

by | 8 Nov 2023

A system of arse-covering and virtue signalling is drowning communities and front-line services in unnecessary paperwork. It is time this became a much bigger issue for social campaigners.

Yesterday I was in Birmingham speaking at the Annual Conference of the Institute of Economic Development. I was talking about the kinds of economic shifts we need to make in a changing world and as part of that I discussed decentralisation and the need to remove the assumption of control from above in Britain.

The reaction I got confirmed something I’ve been certain of for a while – we need a revolution in the patronising bureaucracy of governmental control. I can do that talk a hundred times to community groups and get a unanimous response, but when I make the point to chief executives of major local authorities in England and they’re nodding along, the size of a potential anti-centralisation coalition becomes clear.

This isn’t the Daily Mail raging about ‘red tape’ (the regulation of private business), this is a left-wing case that if a system of government is directing a lot of money away from the frontline and into a dense empire of bureaucracy inside the government machine which constantly imposes and then processes paperwork, it is working against the public interest.

Let me just make the stupid wastefulness of this clear; the subject of the cost of bidding into the never-ending grant streams created by central government came up more than once later on in the conference. One panelist said that while they were endlessly frustrated at the bureaucratic waste of time this imposes on them, they were quite happy that their local authority had got the average cost of preparing a bid down to £35,000.

Perhaps slightly naively, this seemed high to me, so I asked a few other heads of regional economic development how that compared for them. I was more than a little surprised to hear that the normal range for a bid preparation was between £50,000 and £80,000. That’s just to complete the paperwork.

In some ways this is the least of the problems with bid funding. Much more problematic is its fragmented, directive nature. A local authority which is pursuing a particular regional economic development strategy can wake up one morning to find that all the available government money is now being directed at a priority which is not part of that strategy.

So they have to rejig their carefully created strategy to find a way to squeeze it in under the new bid fund. Of course, these funds often exist as one-offs or for limited or unpredictable amounts of time. Having altered a long-range, local industrial strategy to jump through one set of hoops, a year or two later it all needs to be rejigged again as that set of hoops disappears and another appears.

Grants arrive suddenly and can often be over quickly – this makes the planning of funding and investment precarious because no-one knows what is coming next. An industrial strategy isn’t a year-to-year thing – it should involve multi-year actions. How on earth are you planning that as funding lurches from one priority to another and you’re chasing along behind the money?

It’s not just that this is a terrible way to make policy and that it’s fundamentally inefficient and, let’s be honest, fundamentally stupid – it is utterly demotivating

I spoke to senior people who have been undertaking important roles for years only to find that the funding pot which was sustaining their organisations has suddenly disappeared. Now they have to create an entire organisational pivot to (hopefully) open up new funding opportunities.

It’s not just that this is a terrible way to make policy and that it’s fundamentally inefficient and, let’s be honest, fundamentally stupid – it is utterly demotivating. These are groups of really experienced professionals, often working in the areas with the most acute economic deprivation in Britain, and they’re made to dance around like show ponies.

Even worse, all of this crap sends out the very, very clear message that they are not trusted. Some government minister, recently promoted from researcher to politician to governmental leader, in post for five minutes, definitely knows better than professionals who have specialised in this field for their whole carers.

And it’s not like the local authorities themselves are blameless in this – the culture that is imposed on them is one they pass down. To enable them to tick the endless boxes central government makes them tick, they in turn make community groups tick all the same boxes so the ticks can be passed up the chain.

So why does all this happen? There are three primary reasons. Let me start with the only one that offers some sympathy for the government ministers – we expect them to fix everything, or at least we like to blame them for everything.

Let’s take Scotland’s appalling drug deaths. Poor Joe Fitzpatrick (a decent man and a decent Minister) became Sturgeon’s convenient fall-guy when the drug death scandal really broke. But Fitzpatrick’s main experience before becoming an MSP was as a researcher to another politician and as a councillor. This does not exactly qualify him as a drug death reduction expert. But we want a head to roll, and so…

But the real reasons this happens are because a politician wants to be seen to do something. Either because they want to cover their back when there is bad news coming, or because they have been caught out by a negative news story, or because they have an important speech to make, or because they want to be loved, they simply make shit up as they go along.

The Scottish Government is appalling for this. Its response to complex social problems which require coordinated action across a number of spheres is – a grant fund. Its solution to complex economic transition with many factors required to work together for success is – a grant fund. Its default means of demonstrating their ‘values’ is – a grant fund.

This is politics by slogan, and it is a rolling disaster for all concerned. I can barely think of a worse way to build a public policy agenda. But it’s not the end of the story.

The solution is easy; give unrestricted resources to every level of government (right down to the community level) and structure in full, local accountability for what they do with it

Because when they create these lurching, spasmodic bursts of fragmented policy-making, they build in perverse incentives at stage one which multiply themselves as the progression of the ‘policy’ works its way through the system.

This is where the third of the big problems comes in – arse-covering. Because the policy is so badly produced in the first place it is unlikely to actually work properly and everyone knows it. It is very often inducing behaviours in which no-one has any real confidence, behaviours generated only to unlock the grants, not because it was the best assessment of what needed done.

So everyone is looking for a paper trail to submit to the eventual inquiry to prove that the failure wasn’t their fault; either they were directed to do it from above or they did their best to pass that directive down to whomever is below them.

I bumped into one of the leading IED figures on the train on the way back up. He has recently retired, and he says he’s been getting angry ever since. As he put it, now that he doesn’t have work within this stupid system he can see very clearly just how ludicrous it is. And it is.

But everyone is stuck in this bureaucratic game and no-one who has the will to escape it has anything much they can do about it. That is why I think this needs to become a campaigning issue. It is for those of us who are not reliant on this system to campaign to reform it.

The solution is easy; give unrestricted resources to every level of government (right down to the community level) and structure in full, local accountability for what they do with it. I am now increasingly convinced that the system common in the Nordic countries where the bulk of taxation income actually goes directly to local authorities who become answerable for it is the way we should go.

It’s not just that Scotland is being utterly strangled by this ludicrous, fearful, vainglorious system of ‘politics by decree’, it is doing little more than wasting enormous amounts of resource. Why does Scotland feel like it is failing? Largely because of this.

Everyone knows it. No-one ever justifies this way of doing things in private. The entire system is worn down and demoralised by it. If we continue in this direction, half the population will be filling in paperwork and the other half will be processing it, all to bolster the vanity and mitigate the insecurities of politicians.

We should burn this whole idiotic system to the ground and do something radical – trust people who are trying to deliver for Scotland’s communities.

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