Government Matters – Part 1

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

On a regular minicab journey the conversation turned from the expected. The driver said he no longer took any notice of statistics in newspapers because they were misleading, confusing, contradictory or wrong.

And this under formally educated, person in the street is right: statistics are mis-read, mis-interpreted and mis-used by most in pursuit of a public point. Causality confused with correlation, a mean given universal meaning, the absolute paraded when life is about comparison, a droplet sample extrapolated to truths about the ocean, an inference converted to an answer. All of this the minicab driver had seen through. A voter making a very sophisticated judgement beyond that with which he/she is credited: far more sophisticated than 90% of the politico-media community. As ideology, prejudice and sectional interest recede as bases for assessing governmental performance, so reality comes to the fore. Voters look at what positive and negative change has actually happened with increasing accuracy. The surrounding ‘necessary but not sufficient, understandable but amazing’ knock-about of party political debate, of editorial prejudice and inaccuracy, of dirty tricks and of spin has surprisingly little impact unless one side or other neglects its defence completely.

Judging Government

The electorate keeps a scoresheet. All organisations from a supermarket to a children’s charity are continually being judged, invariably on imperfect information but usually with remarkable accuracy. Perception is often behind reality, but catches on quite quickly. Think of Railtrack or Tesco or Amazon.com. Government is the same.

My summary perceptual score is of several major ticks, several major crosses and several major waits. Today’s consumers (as well as being citizens we are customers of government) are harsh judges of their supplying organisations. Promises, starts and work-in-progress count for very little relative to actual change. These judgements apply equally to business and to government. In this sense, government is not regarded as a preferred supplier deserving of kid-glove treatment. Travel broadens the electorate’s mind: the benchmark of performance is increasingly international rather than national, and this benchmark moves ever upward.

The Three Ages

The age of prejudice is ending: what works is what matters above the stimulus of base instincts. The Conservative Party is still working to resurrect prejudice as a vote determinant, dragging the debate back to the past. But throughout the land, our guts are becoming less significant in this arena.

The age of scepticism is here: scepticism of the managements of all large organisations, behaving in unaccountable ways, pretending brown is red and believing the public cannot spot real performance. Mummy is no longer credited with knowing best. Collusion scores negative marks, too.

The age of knowledge is power is here too: power not for the individual to dominate, but power for all. Mass transportation communications represented a locational liberation for nearly everyone. Mass knowledge communications represents the latest surge for freedom, with information available on all sides – a challenge to the established sources of news as much to government and others. A chief operator of world capitalism, Martin Sorrell, head of WPP one of the largest advertising and marketing agencies, said at a recent conference “the web is the most socialistic and communistic phenomenon we have ever seen. What Russia and China failed to do, the web has done”.

A New Relationship

The relationship people now want with their government is altering fast. The fuel price episode found the public reacting in unexpected and new ways. Everyone was surprised including the newspapers and you and me. This outbreak of muscle-flexing combined French-style direct action, legitimate grievance, opportunism, incitement, special pleading and street-corner spin to astonishing effect.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs, with hindsight two points stand out: power and influence. The common people are exercising power and demanding involvement in the decisions affecting their lives. Yes, seeing the group with presently the highest reward to effort ratio in the country, London black cab drivers, jumping on the bandwagon and claiming hardship was sickening, as was the sight of small businessmen complaining about market forces. But, the truckers do have a legitimate complaint about their price competitiveness with continental firms; trucking is a service sector of significance to the economy and to you and me. Their concerns have been around for some time, apparently unregistered by government or by the media. The traditional government approach to these sorts of issues is distant, often inexpert, and usually elitist. The public is expected to roll-over and play for dead.

The Mindset of Government is behind the Mindset of People

But the mindset of the public is well beyond meekly accepting that any organisation knows best be it BT, Railtrack, Shell, Monsanto or Government. The ‘savvy’ index of the average citizen has risen faster than any other index over the last 20 years. We are surrounded by forces of informing. People are also no longer impressed or intimidated by a big title. The flattening of society and the rejection of imposed hierarchy mean that respect is earned not given and, by and large, it is earnt through competence and the values displayed in action. Disrespect is also earnt.

If this were not enough, along has come the Internet making available most of the world’s knowledge to most people in the UK. It is now perfectly possible for a 16 year-old in Cumbria to be better informed about, say, the regulation of monopoly utilities around the world than a civil servant or a minister. The Internet can be grossly over-hyped but not in its radical rebalancing of power between the lifetime expert and the average citizen. So to continue governing via a literally elitist model is both unnecessary and unacceptable.

Management Style of Government

There is a management style point here too. The government has to be complemented for its step change in openness. It can reasonably feel miffed that its leadership in junking the arrogance of its predecessor and in devolving power has been forgotten. But the self-determination front has moved faster. New Labour is concerned, quite rightly, to maintain party discipline. Just remember the monthly NEC meetings during past Labour governments – an institutionalised internal opposition – and you will know why discipline can never be taken for granted. Anyone who gets to the top of any large organisation has high control needs. So some less than liberal behaviour is inevitable. But there is a balance to be struck in tune with the times, between order, leadership and direction on the one hand and participation, learning and humility on the other in the way in which government behaves.

Power and Responsibility of the People and the Media

Reframing the decision-making process and, thus, rebalancing the intra-election use of power between the public and its government cuts both ways. The truckers must engage in a debate that includes environmental pollution and the high proportion of freight moved by road in the UK, as well as price competitiveness. (That other recent example of the common people exercising instant power – the paedophile pursuers – became a case of power without responsibility as anyone with the prefix ‘paed’ became a target.)

And what of the role of the media in this new relationship? Diana’s death, the associated wave of public empathy which again caught everyone by surprise, and the blame directed at the media, led perhaps not to a crisis of confidence but at least to newspapers and others pausing for thought. The public had a mind of its own, no longer content to be media-processed through a major funeral in the traditional Dimbleby manner. The fuel crisis saw the media back in the stands – judging, pontificating and stirring – certain in the knowledge that nothing it said or did would come back to haunt it. What a great job, unless you care.

But the forces coalescing in a wake-up call to the government apply equally, although less immediately, to the media. The statistics my minicab driver does not believe are in newspapers.

The Chinese premier visited London some months ago. Tibetans demonstrated during a royal procession. What happened? Do you know? I don’t. You could read the ‘our owners have business interests in China’ version, the anti-government ‘they suppressed the demonstration’ version, or the ‘nothing much happened and the police did not intervene’ government version. I just wanted to know what actually happened and I could not. Hard news is less and less the currency of the news media. Alternative news streams and peer reporting are on the ascendancy. As much as government has to change its tune, so do our news media. Drop the prejudice, spin or simple laziness and get active in contributing to finding some complex answers to some very difficult questions. More thought, less thoughtless certainty.

Managing Expectations

Alongside using power well, there is something else for us all to consider: managing our expectations. Emotionally, Labour Party activists are towards the idealistic, human values end of the scale. They want to be inspired by principle and by getting it right. They are not necessarily brimful of confidence and are commendably critical. By contrast, Conservative Party activists want and believe in their right to power. Everything else is secondary. Their self-confidence is long-lasting.

All of this makes an enormous difference to the parties as governments and may explain why Labour has not had long periods in office. It is difficult enough for Labour in power, tending to be knocked off course and confidence by powerful undermining sniping from the opposition in all of its forms, notably in 1945-50 (post-war exhaustion was a major factor too). But some of its supporters do not help by being over-critical, not least in the press.

As other commentators have recently remarked, we have to be realistic. For any organisation if 6 out of 10 decisions are right this represents success. Recently, it has been discovered that Tony Blair does not walk on water. Gosh. Many were hoping that he did. We had grown accustomed to his footsure responses. And we are now punishing him for being less than perfect. But this is our projection not his problem. Government is an imperfect business in an imperfect world of imperfect people.

Voltaire said something along the lines of ‘the best is the enemy of the good’. In other words, reaching for the best is invariably unattainable. Whereas aiming for a realistic good, which is achieved, brings much more benefit. Hilary Clinton found this out with over-ambitious healthcare reforms. Giving support to New Labour is not about having the best but about being better than the alternative. In a two and one-third party state, the alternative is limited, particularly with the opposition in its current state (echoes of the Labour opposition in the 80’s here). Being realistic also means knowing that deep change takes a long time and that, in the global economy, there is much national government cannot do alone, like substantially limiting relative poverty.

Any organisation must aspire to improve as standards move ever upwards in today’s ever-changing world. But let us be realistic. My remarks in this paper should be read in this context: excellent progress, little real contest with the opposition, so how can this government improve and lay foundations for future governments.

In managing expectations, inevitably the subject of spin arises. I argue that people make pretty accurate assessments of government performance. Spin is never a substitute for the actuality. But I have no argument with spin. The media sets the rules, as it did in demanding soundbites, and the politicians have to respond. Modern spin was invented by Bernard Ingham and Margaret Thatcher. Every newspaper editor or owner has an agenda, from wider business interests demanding europhobia, acting as the ministry of rebuke, to humanism. The news media is spin. In many respects the present vendetta against Labour spin is no more than revenge for its power and effectiveness.

But clearly a rethink on Labour spin is needed. Saying that presentation not delivery is the problem should always be taken as a danger sign even though it may have some truth. Part of that truth is that the Labour Government seems to have neglected rebuttal. Rebuttal works by taking up a criticism or claim by the opposing parties and assembling and presenting facts and figures quickly to rebut it. The aim is to make the rebuttal the news not the original criticism or claim. Speed is vital. Labour in opposition was remarkably effective at this, learning from Clinton’s first campaign in 1992 where each rebuttal was sent to 200,000 news outlets by email within 2 hours: “speed kills Bush”. The Labour Government needs to re-establish rebuttal as part of its spin armoury, this time in support of its performance: a quite different skill.

What Next?

It is very difficult to judge changes in the public mindset. But what I see in the public attitude to government is common to organisational life. Any politician will ignore these trends at her peril, even in a two and one-third party state.

The new relationship between government and people requires much more than a change in conversational tone. Expectations of rising competence means a government and political party process with this at its heart. Concentration on delivery means an understanding of the process of societal change and universal expertise in change management. Involvement of people in the decisions affecting their lives means a non-elitist decision-making process. These are the very considerable changes in the process of government and politics to which I hope to return in a future piece.

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