Holding to account

Regular readers will know of my loathing of politicians’ slang – all that vision, drawing lines, talking tough, hard working families and so forth.  My current bête noire is ‘holding to account’.  You may ask why – shouldn’t we expect those who have important tasks to do for us be asked to justify their performance ? There follows a rant which I reserve the right not to defend when in a more sober and balanced mood.

This is just bias on my part, I guess. I spent my working life actually doing stuff – teaching classes, allocating budgets, appointing and disappointing staff, negotiating with trade unions, writing timetables, reassuring parents and employers, and so on and so forth.  I loved my work, and enjoyed the people I worked with and the students I met.  Towards the end of my career, the main negative was the mass of second-guessing visitors and inspectors that we had.  I think I counted six sets of auditors on one occasion – from the LEA, the TEC, the EU, the Funding Council and our own internal and external auditor.  The harassed Finance Director claimed – rightly – he spent more time explaining to other people how he was doing his job than actually doing his job.  And then there was the valkyrie ride of the inspectorates, which changed form every now and again but changed rules more often.  One year a college was expected to prioritise community links. The next year, it was judged on academic results and to hell with the community.  The next year it was governance – just make sure all boxes were ticked.  Then it was links with employers – to hell with governors.  Then it was safeguarding – don’t let an employer in unless s/he has child protection clearance.  No surprise that schools in the top category one year are in special measures three years later.

Bernard Shaw famously said that those who do, can, and those that can’t, teach.  Not true, actually – teaching is a difficult job.  But it may be true that those who can’t teach join the inspectorate: I certainly met some who would have been crushed by the responsibilities carried by the managers they judged.  A colleague who ran a construction college that was criticised for out-dated equipment let the inspector know, in a kind but forceful way, the (miniscule) size of his capital budget: collapse of stout party, one hopes.  And outside education, too, there are inspectorates who couldn’t run a hospital or protect a vulnerable child, but surely can make life a misery for those who can.  And they place pressure on those in the job to get a good grade in the next inspection, so that every lesson, every ward procedure, every police policy is aimed not to improve the service but to get a big tick at the next inspection, audit or assessment.

One loathsome part of the ‘hold to account’ mafia are MPs.  It’s good fun, I am sure, to second-guess those doing the work.  But when asked “er, who exactly holds you to account for the endless overspends and policy mistakes ?”, the answer comes “I am responsible to the electorate”.  This is pretty fair tosh.  Most MPs – more than two-thirds – are in seats that do not ever change hands.  In the right seat, a monkey would get elected if he had the right party label, and often does.  And elections take place every five years, and do not comment on the subtlety of policy choices.  Which bugger actually voted for PFI ?  Who approved the opening of that stupid academy ?  Who cut police numbers and froze nurses’ pay ?  Would MPs regard a system of quality assurance that took place every five years, had no criteria of excellence and ignored two-thirds of relevant employees, as “fit for purpose” in any other area of work ?

“Fit for purpose”.  Oh, lord, another cliché.

What is to be done ?  Firstly, there should be an annual assessment of MP work – visits undertaken, sessions attended, policy discussions followed up.  And then, to enrich the quality of experience they bring to the Commons, MPs, like American Presidents, might be limited in the terms that they can serve.  Thirdly, they should have a lively programme of work experience, every year, wiping bums in dementia wards, managing refuse collection, balancing a library budget, visiting a vulnerable child, cooking at an army base, patrolling a late-night motorway, serving in a late-night A&E ward.  There is a clear need for inspectors and auditors to spend a maximum of, say, five years in their job before returning to the reality of front-line delivery.

When they’ve all done all that, they can start thinking about systems for holding people to account – people doing real jobs on inadequate budgets under the cosh of corporate wise-acres.  Oh, and have you noticed how rarely those at the top of the private sector, raising prices and reducing services, are ‘held to account’.

p.s. This is not revenge from a bitter man.   The inspector who observed me as a young teacher asked if I wanted to join the inspectorate.  When a Principal, I never failed an inspection, and in fact was awarded a Grade 1 for management after my last visitation.  But I got out because I know they would get me in the end.  Like politicians (and football managers), a public service management career usually ends in failure.

“A” levels and HE

It’s that time of year when the “A” level results come out. The press report this in three ways.  Firstly, leggy blondes from Hertfordshire are seen jumping for joy at the receipt of their results at a private school in Hertfordshire.  Secondly, any improvement in grades is seen as a lapse in standards (just as, in any individual school or college, a fall in grades is seen as a lapse in standards also).  And then there’s the annual panic about shortage of university places, made all the more appalling by the way that admission tutors might actually accept state school pupils (i.e. your kids and mine) ahead of private school pupils (i.e. newspaper columnists’ kids).  In a world where fee-paying schools educate about 6% of our children and take 45% of the places at Oxford and Cambridge, the question about complaints of discrimination is not “what school were they at ?”, but “which planet are they on ?”.

This got to its peak a few years ago when Tom Utley, a columnist in the Times argued that it was absurd to expand universities when we were short of plumbers and electricians.  About two weeks later, the same columnist was incandescent that Oxbridge might favour poorer pupils in its admissions process at the expense of his son.  I wrote to the paper, asking why his son couldn’t take up an apprenticeship in the construction industry in line with previous views, but it remains one of my great unpublished letters.

I would write more but I don’t need to as the ground has been magnificently covered by Dawn Foster, who points out the (surely well-known) statistic that state pupils do better in higher education than their contemporaries from private education with similar grades.  Visit it – well worth a read. The conclusion ?  Preferring state school pupils would not only contribute to a fairer society, it would provide better value for money and higher levels of skill.

Well, what do you know ?

Paul Krugman draws attention to the American Senator and right wing ideologue Rand Paul who complains about the evils of “running a trillion-dollar deficit every year” – which, as it happens, is not at all what is happening; the deficit is at around $600 billion and falling fast. This follows on Eric Cantor – the House majority leader – talking about “growing deficits”, when deficits are in fact shrinking.

Krugman reckons that “it’s pretty clear that Paul actually has no idea that the deficit is falling; it’s quite possible that neither does Cantor. The whole incident reminds me of 2011, when supposedly well-informed candidates like Tim Pawlenty went on about soaring government employment during a time of unprecedented cuts in the public payroll. Once you’re inside the closed conservative information loop, you know lots of things that aren’t so”.

The question is, though, what the public knows when it has this drivel driven into its brain all the time. A 1996 poll asked voters whether the deficit had increased or decreased under Clinton (it had, in fact, fallen sharply). A plurality of voters — and a heavy majority of Republicans — thought the deficit had gone up.  Krugman reckons that result would be repeated if they did it now.

OK, switch to the UK.  A new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London highlights how wrong the British public can be on the make-up of the population and the scale of key social policy issues.  The top ten misperceptions are:

  1. Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates:  we think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%.
  2. Crime: 58% do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19% lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53% lower than in 1995.  51% think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012..
  3. Job-seekers allowance: 29% of people think we spend more on JSA than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).
  4. Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100.
  5. Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year.  More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).
  6. Religion: we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.  And we underestimate the proportion of Christians: we estimate 34% on average, compared with the actual proportion of 59% in England and Wales.
  7. Immigration and ethnicity: the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%.  There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups).
  8. Age: we think the population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 36% of the population are 65+, when only 16% are.
  9. Benefit bill: people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+.  In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.
  10. Voting: we underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43%, when 65% of the electorate actually did (51% of the whole population).

And there is, I suspect, a lot more.  An example : the idea that our current economic woes were caused by over-generous governments rather than imprudent bankers has now entered the popular consciousness, and it cannot be moved.  So what should be done?   I think the Labour Party at the next election should simply put up a series of posters highlighting the difference between what is being claimed to happen, and what is happening. The debt has grown, not fallen, under the Tories.  Economic recovery has been slower than almost any other comparable economy.  Taxes on the rich have been reduced.  Numbers of police and nurses have fallen.  Crime fell under Labour.  Education results improved.  Social programmes worked.  More kids went to university under Labour, whereas there are reports of falling numbers at the moment.  I know that a lie is halfway around the world before truth has its boots on, but we should at least be able to put a few trip-wires on its route.