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Public Scrutiny
- a Magic Wand?


Chris

Public Services
From my own personal perspective, which includes the views of those I talk to, and what I read and watch on TV, our public services are generally thought to be of too low a quality and too high a price.

  • In education we worry about class sizes, quality of teaching, examination standards, truancy, and drugs
  • In health we worry about waiting times, standards of care, and our position in the global league tables
  • In transport we worry about train safety, train prices, train capacity & cleanliness, road congestion, road building schemes, and toll roads
  • On crime we perceive ever-increasing crime figures. Our prisons are full. Our legal system favours the rich and takes years to award trifling community penalties to burglars and muggers.

These problems and their solutions are the responsibility of our politicians and the public bodies which form our local and national governments.

But when I watch these bodies at work or hear them account for themselves, I am often depressed.

At local level, our councillors seem too busy with petty bickering and the pursuit of personal agendas. While services seem to get worse our community charge continues to outpace inflation.

At national level, many of our MPs disappear from local view as soon as they are elected (what has your MP done for you?), surfacing only to fend off sleaze allegations and to ask for your vote. Their leaderships are working hard on presentation while neglecting content, and on diverting our attentions from the latest scandal or failing initiative.

At the European level our commissioners have all been disgraced, having resigned on mass then been re-appointed. Our Euro-MPs and what they do for us is a major mystery to me. We sit back and watch whilst our money is poured into straightening cucumbers and bailing out Spanish fishermen.

Every four years or so we face the depressing task of electing our least awful candidate as our parliamentary representative. This candidate may well have shown himself to be a lying, self-serving hypocrite in the past. Yet he’s the best we have. Is it any wonder voting turnout is so low?

The real rate of taxation in Britain runs at about 50 percent of income. It's difficult to feel satisfied with what that huge financial burden buys us, yet we’re told we must contribute far more to build decent public services.

Politicians Can't Fix It
I think the political process is riddled with problems. It will not provide an effective way of organising the details of our society in the foreseeable future. Just look back a few years, then think forwards - we're in for a lot more of the same old guff.

Even a healthy political process is limited in the extent to which it can improve our society, and ours is far from healthy.

The Civil Service Won't Fix It Alone
We already have a vast and hugely expensive machine designed to implement the policies of our elected decision makers. It’s the civil service and all of the government and public bodies which we tax payers finance.

Whilst many parts of the civil service may be doing outstanding work, other parts of it are troubled by incompetence, complacency and opacity - three bed-fellows I mention often. The time for which these problems have persisted suggest that we cannot expect a management awakening any time soon.

Who Can Fix It?
I believe that our best hope for gaining a more effective "society machine" is for large numbers of citizens to work together on a bottom-up strategy - improving society from within it.

With this strategy we can tackle all of the problems which face us: crime, poor public services, poor service – and a great deal more besides.

What we need to do is to "Scrutinise".

Public Scrutiny
Our government is employed by us and is accountable to us. We have the right to scrutinise them. This is a major component of our democratic society. A government that is accountable must allow us to watch it at work. We should be able to see the meetings (or their minutes) and the documents. That are required to be open to us.

That's the theory, anyway.

My practical experience in searching for data on the BSE enquiry suggests that this theory may be very far from reality. I have been treated very poorly and blocked in my attempts to find out why the BSE enquiry cost us £6million. You can read more about that here, but suffice it to say that - based on my experience and on what I have heard elsewhere, Open Government is a pipe dream which few citizens ever get to claim as their right.

My working hypothesis is that government departments are reluctant to be open because they have things to hide. Principle among those things, I imagine, is incompetence.

If I were able to scrutinize an Excel spreadsheet which showed a detailed breakdown of those £6 million tax payer pounds which bought us our BSE enquiry, then we could see the intention of Open Government made real.

If the numbers all make sense and seem reasonable, then I will be a happy chappy. I will stand educated in the workings of this part of government and of how £6m can be spent in running an enquiry. It will have cost virtually nothing to provide this data – as the government will have collected it anyway. They will have used it to derive their totals and to manage the public purse effectively. This will have been open government in action. My civil right, granted.

If, on the other hand, the spreadsheet raises questions, then I can pursue them. I’ll ask questions and report on the answers and any problems found to you, LFB members, or to journalists or TV program-makers. And I can make further enquiries and complaints to civil servants higher up the chain, or to my MP.

As a consequence, poor civil servants may be demoted or fired. Lessons may be learned, training may be commissioned and delivered, and others in the service will see that they are accountable in real, practical ways – to the people whose money they spend.

When the dust settles, Britain will be fixed in a small way. Multiply this by a thousand members, pursuing a thousand enquiries, and those small ways begin to add up.

Simply shining the public gaze onto any activity can improve it.

If, as seems to me to be the case, the civil service is a huge, opaque fortress, practically answerable to nobody, then they will conduct their business in a certain way. I am guessing that involves:

1. A culture of entitlement and self-justification
2. A bias towards maintaining the status quo
3. Institutional inefficiency

[Ever seen the series “Yes, Minister”? Margaret Thatcher has said that that series was very close to the truth.]

If, on the other hand, they know that we have a right to scrutinise their work, and that we can and do exercise that right in practical ways, they will have an entirely different and far healthier mind set and organisation, involving:

1. A culture of service for the public
2. A willingness to introspect and change
3. Constantly improving efficiency

Even if you don’t read any documents, simply exercising the right to ask for them could have a magical and low-cost effect on the running of our government.

What is true for central government is also true for local government - education authorities, health authorities, police authorities, and any other public body.

So – I am suggesting that Let’s Fix Britain members, up and down our country, engage with a part of government that interests them, and pursues that interest with the department concerned.

They should “poke around”. Ask to see reports, and tenaciously push through to a point where they understand the issues and events, and they're happy that everything happened as it should have.

Do this reasonably, patiently and courteously, but don’t give in, and don’t stop once you get a content-free glossy. Read the glossy and try to understand it, by all means - but I guarantee it will raise far more questions than it answers for anyone with an alert mind. This will be your starting point - not the end-point.

We can all share our findings at the Let’s Fix Britain web site– in the forums and in articles you write. Not just findings on the issue, but lessons about the process.

Who Can You Scrutinise?

Broadly - any public body - which means all of the following, and some more besides:

  • Any government department
  • The House of Commons & the Lords
  • Assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales
  • The armed forces (but not special forces of GCH)
  • Local authorities - parish, district, borough and county councils
  • Fire, waste, health, police and port authorities
  • NHS practitioners (general medical, dental, ophthalmic, pharmaceutical)
  • Governing bodies of maintained schools
  • Schools, colleges & universities funded under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992
  • Numerous advisory committees
  • Arts councils
  • Many Museums
  • The Civil Aviation Authority

How Can You Scrutinize?

The process is straightforward but you need to be a bit of a self-starter:

  • Pick a topic which interests you, or where you think you smell a rat.

    Perhaps you're not happy with some aspect of the running of your daughter's school, or the local paid-parking scheme.

    My first outing was for the BSE enquiry. I couldn't see how we could spend £6 million on an enquiry into the crises.
  • Try to write down exactly what it is you want to know. In my case I wanted "The complete financial breakdown of the costs of the enquiry into the BSE crisis".
  • Find the appropriate government body. I knew it was DEFRA, and I found them on the web. I worked through email and phone.
  • ALWAYS start out with the assumption that the people you contact are nice people, with personal integrity, working hard to do a great job in what may be difficult circumstances. I have personally dealt with many such people at the Bedford councils, and you'll doubtless find your share too.
  • Keep all your correspondence, make dated notes about the contents of phone calls. Make sure you always know who you are speaking to, and what position they occupy. Feel free to open a new thread in the "Battle Diaries" forum, and document your progress there.
  • Do not be diverted by pleasant non-compliance. I was treated very pleasantly and courteously and given a high-level summary. But as I pushed for the detail, I met with less pleasantness and zero compliance.
  • Never be tempted to become rude or to display impatience. If you lose the moral high ground, you're sunk. By all means be direct: "you have not answered my questions" or "please give me the name & contact information for the person you report to" - but don't be rude.
  • If progress is too slow with the person you are dealing with, escalate to their boss. Don't become daunted - whatever their job title.
  • If you need to, refer to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I will be publishing a guide to this sorry piece of legal mumbo-jumbo shortly.
  • Sometimes you'll be ignored, and in the absence of incoming email, you may forget that you're on a mission at all. So put a reminder in your diary to send a prod if you have not received a reply after a reasonable time.
  • Please keep LFB up-to-date - firstly, because it's interesting and inspirational for other members, but also in case other members can offer you advice on your campaign. As mentioned earlier, you can document your progress as you go in a new thread in the "Battle Diaries" forum.
  • If you reach a brick wall, please contact us.

    - we might be able to help you.

Any Objections?

As I write this I can imagine a few worries which some of you may have - or which may surface as accusations against members doing public scrutiny. Here are my answers, which I hope you'll agree with and use when appropriate:

  1. Aren't you just wasting everyone's time and Public money?
    Well - you are certainly occupying a public servant's time, and they'll be earning a salary financed through public funds. So you should use their time efficiently by preparing your correspondences well. If you're asking frivolous questions you are wasting time & money. But if you are a tax-paying citizen with a genuine interest, or a suspicion you want to pursue, you have a right to do so. I might even go as far as saying you have an obligation to do so.
  2. What Good will all this Do?
    There are several real benefits:
    • You will be given information which will help you to understand issues of legitimate public interest.
    • That information may allow you to further an investigation which may expose problems which ought to be made public. That exposure may go on to cause corrective actions to be taken within the public body, and in other bodies who may be observing events.
    • You will be showing public bodies that they can and will be called to account for their actions in the service of the public. This will have beneficial effects.
  3. Don't you Have Anything Better to Do?
    I have plenty of other things to do, but scrutinising important aspects of government in action is what I have carefully chosen to invest some of my precious time in doing.

Conclusion
So there it is. Public Bodies conduct the work of running our society on our behalf and at our expense. If we want to understand more, we have a right to be given the relevant information.

So the next time you wonder why the rates just went up 17%, or you see a minister glossing over another disaster, or you don't like what they're doing at your daughter's school or you wonder why you haven't seen a policeman on foot in three years, exercise your right to scrutinize!

 
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