Tuesday, 29 March 2011

What is the real agenda?

"It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social and never destroy and absorb them."

Quadragesimo Anno (The Fortieth Year), Pope Pius XI, 1931

The Jersey Evening Post had this report recently:

MINISTERS are driving their own agendas rather than the Council of Ministers' because of a lack of central policy, the Chief Minister has said. Senator Terry Le Sueur believes that a restructuring of his department is now needed to address the problem and ensure that the Island's ministerial system of government - which was heavily criticised in a report published last week - can be a success. In that report the Public Accounts Committee said the system was fundamentally flawed because the Chief Minister and chief executive did not have enough control over Ministers. As a result, it concluded, Ministers had almost 'dictatorial powers' over their departments and their authority could not be readily checked. While Senator Le Sueur, who was speaking at a Scrutiny Panel hearing, did not directly refer to the report he conceded that the States was being driven 'bottom up rather than top down'. (1)

Examples of Ministers setting their own agenda abound. Probably the most notorious was that of Deputy Guy de Faye when he signed a  Ministerial Order to allow Utility companies to be able to dig through anyone's gardens without needing permission, and that had to be rescinded after a States debate on the matter.

Deputy James Reed, more recently, decided to push ahead with his proposals on removing a large proportion of the subsidy to private schools, and clearly had not discussed it with his Ministerial colleagues.

So what is the answer? The response from the Chief Minister appears to be not to seek a more consensus style of Ministerial politics where the Ministers have to discuss plans with each other and their Assistant Ministers, but instead to move towards a what John Seddon calls a "command and control structure" which makes the Chief Minister the one with "dictatorial powers" to keep his unruly colleagues in check, and no doubt veto any plans they may have; it is a move towards a centralisation of power, rather than addressing the real problem, which was highlighted very clearly by Senator Ian Le Marquand, that Ministers don't really meet and talk with each other. This lack of consultation is also mentioned as of major importance by E.F. Schumacher, in his book "Good Work":

The style of management in a hierarchy should be the best possible style of management. If people don't consult, then it is just a bad style of management. (2)

Some of the centralisation proposed can already be seen emerging from current practice. The role of Economic Development Minister has been partly usurped by the Department of the Treasury Minister, who has been the Minister responsible for the overseas Finance delegations rather than - as was previously the case - the Economic Development Minister. And the Minister responsible, Senator Philip Ozouf, has mentioned in the JEP that the three departments - Chief Minister's Department, Treasury, and Economic Developments - need to work more closely together.

This may mean a step towards consensus politics, but it is more likely to mean that ultimate control devolves from Treasury to Chief Ministers Department, in much the same way that Finance delegations abroad seem to have been taken over by the Treasury.

And given the current structure of the States, a Chief Minister could be elected from a small Parish, and yet then have considerable powers over the whole Island, as well as considerable control and patronage over his proposed appointees for Ministerial positions. There are, as yet, no plans for reforming the electoral districts, and nor are there any plans in the pipeline for restricting the Chief Minister to two or three terms of office.

So instead of Ministers "driving their own agendas", I suggest we may well see a Chief Minister driving his own agenda, and Ministers reduced in all but name to Assistant Ministers, whose task it is to carry out a single agenda.

This is the kind of organisation described by E.F. Schumacher in his book "Good Work", when he describes a picture he has which is, of necessity, an oversimplification, but is nonetheless a good way of looking at the bigger picture:

I had two pictures in my mind: one the picture of a Christmas tree, with a star at the top and all sorts of nuts underneath, more or less nourishing and useful nuts. That is a monolithic organization. The administrators, as particularly epitomized by accountants, always tend to such an orderly setup. The biggest task in any living thing is initiative. But, with this monolithic structure, one normally looks to the star at the top for the initiative because all the rest are executors of the policy. One man's initiative, no matter how able, and then a diminishing scale downwards of initiative is just not good enough to keep the thing alive.

And Schumacher then comes up with another picture of how organisations can work:

Take the other picture--a chap at a fun fair, who in one hand holds hundreds of strings, and at the end of each string a balloon. Each balloon has its own buoyancy, a nice round thing. That is the ideal structure in a large organization. Of course you need someone to hold it all together, but it is not a star at the top, it is a man underneath and each balloon has its own buoyancy. Each balloon is somehow a limited thing, and thus, in a manner of speaking, the more the merrier.

Now Schumacher is presenting a parable, and turning the parable into action is difficult, as he was the first to acknowledge.  In his book he presents three very good case studies of different business organisations reworking and rethinking their administrative structures, but he notes that "you have to make distinctions. I insist that all this is hard work; there are no set formulas."

He returned to the same them in his essay "Towards A Theory of Large-Scale Organisation":

Once a large organisation has come into being, it normally goes through alternating phases of centralising and decentralising, like swings of a pendulum. Whenever one encounters such opposites, each of them with persuasive arguments in its favour, it is worth looking into the depth of the problem for something more than compromise, more than a half-and-half solution (3)

Nowhere is this more apparent than under the successive regimes of Margaret Thatcher and John Major and Tony Blair, where we can see the pendulum swinging backwards and forwards between different kinds of cabinet government, each seeking to be different, and to turn against the failings of its predecessor:

Thatcher was despised by her critics for many reasons, one of which was her domineering approach to her government and how she rode roughshod over the cabinet, emasculated them (in more ways than one) and deliberately made herself and her office in charge of the important decisions.

Major on the other hand was criticised for not having enough control over his cabinet. For not expelling 'the bastards' when he had the chance, not being decisive enough and allowing his cabinet and the party as a whole smother him and trap him into a corner. This was deemed to be weak leadership

Blair was attacked for being too Presidential. He took too little care to consult with the cabinet and run the government from his office and with the aid of his personal and press advisors. The argument was that he didn't really have time for cabinet and sought to do things his way with the government being very centrally controlled from No 10. (4)

In his essay, Schumacher enumerates one of his principles for organisations, and it runs counter to increasing centralisation as a means of making an organisation - even Ministerial government - work more efficiently, but it also avoids the wild swings between micro-managerial styles of government, and lack of control:

The Principle of Subsidiary Function implies that the burden of proof lies always on those who want to deprive a lower level of its function, and thereby of its freedom and responsibility in that respect; they have to prove that the lower level is incapable of fulfilling this function satisfactorily and that the higher level can actually do much better. (4)

The best Chief Minister, then, would not be one to wield ultimate control over other Ministers, and try and micro-manage other Ministers, but one who worked hard at deciding how best to delegate, what could be delegated to Ministers, and what could not, and how Ministers could avoid the trap of running Ministerial departments as personal fiefdoms, and engage with each other, and also hopefully better with the States and the general public.

And to repeat Schumacher - this is hard work; there are no set formulas - while the easier solution is just to centralise under a command and control structure, which is a set formula, and one that I fear is also a formula for failure.

(2) Good Work, E.F. Schumacher, 1979
(3) http://www.cesc.net/radicalweb/notices/nb35.html
(4) http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?p=49029404

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The reference to Thatcher, Major and Blair leaves out one name who is living proof that - however hard it is - consensual ministerial government can be done, and achieve one hell of a lot.

Step forward Mr Clement Attlee...