Joe Quango

If we can rely on anything in 2007, it is that the dismal state of political debate we now have in this country will continue. Philip Webster in The Times reports on the latest example of vacuous thinking:

The Government is to recruit 100 people to help miniters to shape policies on the public services for the next decade … The people, selected by market research organisations as a cross-section representative of the population, will be asked to put themselves in the shoes of the Government’s decision makers

The most terrible irony of this policy, is that it will propagate the problem it has clearly been devised to counter – that of a disconnection between ‘ordinary’ (whatever that means) voters, and the politicians who rule us. At its core, the idea assumes that politicians are not ordinary people, and necessarily so. This might be true on some levels, but if we have reached the stage where a politician is someone who, by definition, cannot know what ordinary people want, then I fear for our salvation.

True, there are policy-wonks and journalists, residents of the fabled ‘Westminster Village’, who have become MPs, but there are also plenty of politicians on the green benches who have also lived in what we might call ‘the real world’ (indeed, no MP would ever claim that this was not true of them).

Has the idea that our political representative should be somehow, well, representative of our views, gone out of fashion? I have always assumed that each MP had his or her ready-made focus group: We call them constituencies, and their members are a perfect representation of the public, a better barometer than anything emulated by market-research companies.

Picking a tiny group of people to advise ministers would seem to by-pass the in-built ‘sovereignty’ of the constituents. The views of the latter group are trumped by those of the former, and I forsee a situation where a stamp of approval from this advisory committee of ordinary people is taken as a sign of a successful policy… regardless of whether the policy has done any good in the real world. This would be typical. If public services are now orientated to the meeting of targets which signal success, rather than actually delivering successful services… it is somehow apt that this same, brain-dead principle is also applied to the act of governing itself.

How depressing. We elect politicians precisely so they can govern. We expect them to make decisions based on what they think our best interests are. In fact, making decisions is the only thing we ask them to do. Asking approval from a cabal of annointed wise men implies that those who currently hold ministerial posts lack the confidence to carry out this one task! If that is the case, the solution to the problem is to employ (i.e. elect) someone else who can do the job themselves, without outsourcing the task to an unelected panel.

Finally, the policy overlooks the crucial possibility that what is popular is not always what is right. Will a minister always take the advice of the panel? If so, then we have a serious democratic crisis on our hands. If not (and we already know they will not) then they are essentially just another group of unelected advisors. Why bother?

There is a horrible ‘meta’ level to this entire idea. It is as if someone in a focus group somewhere has suggested that “giving the public more of a say” would be a good idea, and this policy has been devised on that basis. It has not been created to actually influence policy, just to give the appearance that the government is in touch, and listening. If the government wishes to achieve this impression, it could do so much more effectively through parliament, its MPs and their constituents. As an added bonus, the general public may actually get to have more of a say in how their services are delivered. No extra layer is necessary.

9 thoughts on “Joe Quango

  1. It’s part of the consultancy fever that appears to have gripped this government. I don’t really get it, myself, but a couple of my friends are management consultants so I try not to be rude about it.

  2. “Finally, the policy overlooks the crucial possibility that what is popular is not always what is right”.

    Surely that’s the cornerstone of democracy though, government by the majority, for the majority ? If the majority want it, it is by definition “right”. I do worry that this simple but important principle is being quietly buried by political correctness.
    Agree about focus groups though, and as someone who works with a lot of management consultants, I won’t bore you with my opinions of them or the real reasons they are employed.

  3. I think, Matt, that the issue here is one of direct democracy versus representative democracy. If we’re going for an Athenian system of direct democracy, then your definition of “right” does indeed hold… and there would be nothing wrong with doing exactly as the majority pleased. I would also have less problem with market research companies approximating what the majority thought on any given issue.

    But this flies in the face of the principles of our representative democracy. Part of the mental equation we perform when deciding who to vote for, is choosing someone to make as yet unknown decisions on our behalf. This is why a person’s character, leadership qualities, powers of analysis, diplomatic qualities, political affiliations and beliefs (ideological, or religious), are as important (perhaps even more important) as manifesto committments. This form of political system also assumes that there is a “right” that is distinct from what the majority prefers.

    Personally (and we may be homing in on our personal ideological differences here) I also lean towards this ‘representative’ analysis. But since most British politicians buy into this ‘represenative’ analysis too, I think its odd for any of them to endorse a policy which so obviously undermines it.

  4. The problem is I don’t believe that joe public indulges in that sort of in depth analysis of their politicians – hardly any voters even read manifestos – they tend to vote out of habit, perceived self interest, because they perceive a need for change or because they believe someone to be a good leader. It is also becoming harder to asess a politicians character as managed image has become more important than personality, intellect or integrity. Despite being an avid consumer of news media, and after 10 years in the public eye, I would still struggle so summarise Blairs “character” in any meaningfull way.
    I’m not sure I fully appreciate the difference between direct and representative democracy, unless the former equates to a referendum type arrangement on every decision and the latter to electing a body of representatives to make decisons on the voters behalf ? In all but the simplest and smallest societie,s the former would be unworkable in a pragmatic sense, although perhaps less so with internet technology etc. The latter has always been my understanding of democracy.
    Irrespective of ideology, the use of focus groups would worry me because a perennial problem with any self selecting group is that it can only ever be representative of “people who agree to take part of focus groups”. Having said that I expect this will be a cosmetic exercise and the opinions of “the people” will only inform policy where they are consistent with the opinions of the policy makers.

  5. I think that, no matter what criteria people use to elect their politicians, in almost no case is that criteria “I’ll vote for him because he’ll consult me on most decisions.”

    With the rise of the internet and digital communications, a more direct and participatory democracy can and should arise. We’re not there yet though, and of all the improvements to be made, a 100 person focus group is not a good first step. In fact, it looks like a step backwards.

    But this is all academic because, yes, the policy is most certainly a cosmetic excerise in the first place.

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