Reform ? As if things weren’t bad enough already !*

I have voted in every election for which I have been eligible – which means, since the 1966 General Election.  I canvassed for the 1964 General Election, but in those days 18 year olds couldn’t vote.  In this week’s elections for Police Commissioner, for the first time, I spoiled my ballot paper.

This wasn’t because of a deep satisfaction with the performance of the police.  Philip Collins wrote an article in today’s Times arguing that we needed commissioners because of the lamentable performance of police forces.  Well, the performance is indeed disappointing,  How come we have falling detection and clear-up rates – and widespread dissatisfaction by victims to police reaction to crime – at a time when we have more police officers than ever, and when technology such as DNA fingerprinting and computer databanks should be making it easier to catch crooks ?

My disagreement is how to change this situation.  The current government – and, to be fair, the one before it, and the one before that – believe that the way to improve the performance of public bodies is structural change.  You want better education ? Well, let’s change the ownership of schools, and alter the membership of the governing body.  Improved health outcomes ?  The answer is plainly to alter the purchaser-provider relationships within the health service.  More effective weapons procurement ?  Let’s reform the bodies that buy arms with more private sector involvement.  Troubled by lax immigration control, dead-beat dads or poor financial standards ? Set up a new agency.

The problem with all this is, in the words of one grizzled American professor, “everyone knows none of that shit works”.  The way to do things better is, er, to do things better.  Education is improved by better teaching and learning.  The only time this has been tried in my professional life – the “Success For All” initiative in further education colleges – success rates rose by about 50%, before the government reverted to its default position, reliance on ‘choice and competition’.  Health care improves when new methods and practices are introduced.  And I suspect that the way to cut crime lies in improving the competence and training of police personnel.

My experience is that structural change diverts the attention away from doing the job better.  It’s difficult to improve performance without clear lines of accountability, and these don’t happen when the person or body in charge is constantly changing – or constantly responding to the latest idiotic enthusiasm from above.  Four of our five children work in public bodies, and they are all being reorganized at the moment.  Of course restructuring is sometimes needed, to cut costs or clarify responsibilities.  The creation of specialized stroke and child heart hospitals has improved outcomes – but only because it led to things being done better.  I did plenty of restructuring myself in my last job, to unify a merged institution and save money.  However, the actual performance of the institution didn’t start to improve for a couple of years afterwards, after people had got to grips with their new job.

Could commissioners deliver this better practice that is the only route to success ?  No.  They are non-experts, and they will be looking for the next election that will maintain their £80,000 job.  They will learn and spout all the politicians newspeak that we have heard for years – “I’m not just talking tough”, “We’re sending out a clear message”, “my pledge to you is”, “we have set challenging targets” “that’s why I am today announcing an new initiative” and all the other rotting fruit from the compost heap of the English Language.  Photo-opportunities will be created, with our hero opening another (short-lived) initiative.  Like a maniacal football club chairman, they will look to sack those who don’t deliver ‘on’ (ugh) their ambitions, or hit their performance indicators, even if there are good reasons not to.  It is striking that the elections took place on the day that we learned that the Kent Constabulary has been routinely fiddling its returns to hit its targets for clear-up and detection rates.  No wonder turnout was so low, and (judging from radio interviews) so well informed.  Many voters stayed away because it was a cold November day, or they didn’t know the candidates, or they disagreed with the politicization of a public function, but a fair minority abstained because they thought the idea was stupid.  I think they are right.

New agencies or commissioners to bark orders are not needed.  The fact is that everybody knows what is wanted.  Better results in schools.  Lower infection rates in hospitals.  Less crime and higher clear-up rates for police forces.  More skilled apprentices.  Less drug addiction.  Cheaper fares and fewer cancelled trains.  More affordable housing.  Lower re-offending rates after prison.  It is really, honestly, not difficult to list what we want to happen.  The difficult bit is actually doing it – making it happen.  This is a matter of professional competence.

* quotation from anonymous Victorian aristocrat

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