Saturday 10 July 2010

Well, why wouldn't an anti-statist government scrap the census?

I am quite surprised by just how badly the new government has been doing on basic administrative competence.

Let us acknowledge that David Cameron is rather good at the tonality and public perfomance aspects of "being Prime Minister", without perhaps placing quite quite the premium on etiquette which so impresses Martin Kettle.

On policy, the record on ever the highest-profile issues has been astonishingly poor.

George Osborne's first big idea, the Office of Budget Responsibility, is facing ever more credibility challenges.

The scale and frequency of Michael Gove's abject apologies to the House of Commons and everybody else is pretty much unparalleled in modern times.

As far as I can tell, the LibDem ministers have so far seemed less likely to make a complete horlicks of high-profile projects (since the personal and political misfortune of David Laws and the private shenanigans of Chris Huhne don't quite figure here).

Now, being a believer in value-based politics, I am by nature very sceptical of claims that one should expect any great difference in technocratic or managerial competence between centre-left, centre-right or centrist governments, particularly in a system with a permanent civil service. No doubt there were many examples under Labour too. (The famous Byers-Mottram fiasco and sweary masterclass springs to mind).

That the government has made a number of proposals - on rape anonymity, and the 55% confidence rule - which did not survive 5 minutes external scrutiny perhaps reflects inexperience among ministers and advisers. (The government's evident surprise when its "fairness graph" in the budget Red Book fell apart within 24 hours did demonstrate the difference between opposition and government, and a surprising failure to imagine or war game the likely scenarios and challenges).

Yet now I wonder if there may also be an underlying ideological reason why this government may prove particularly accident prone over the years ahead.

It is a thought triggered by Francis Maude's wheeze of scrapping the census, reported in The Telegraph.

Mr Maude, who has responsibility for the Census, told The Daily Telegraph that the Government was looking for a “fundamentally” better way of doing it. “There are, I believe, ways of doing this which will provide better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper,” he said ...

Mr Maude said the Census was “out of date almost before it has been done” and was looking at ways to count the population more frequently — perhaps every five years — using databases held by credit checking firms, Royal Mail, councils and Government.

All very "big society" - and surely supermarket loyalty cards could provide the foundation stone too - but the use of a patchwork of information, including from private credit check agencies (!) which I am sure will delight the civil libertarian wing of the government, will have all sorts of unintended consequences, many of which may come to light when it is too late to go back.

(As the FT blog points out, fortunately, Maude can't scrap it for 2011 so this cost-saving plan will be aimed at the 2021 census, making it perhaps possible that this is an idea which may never happen).

The idea of scrapping the census strikes me as potentially an interesting symbol of a way of thinking about government. Now doubt the government thinks it demonstrates its bold willingness to "think outside the box" in the conviction that you can always get more for less, which is the first article of faith of the Cameroons.

But it reminded me rather more of an interesting point made about the Reagan and Bush administrations by George Packer in a New Yorker essay on the ideological right.

Even Reagan, the Moses of the conservative movement, was more ideological in his rhetoric than in his governance. Conservatives have canonized him for cutting taxes and regulation, moving the courts to the right, and helping to vanquish the Soviet empire. But he proved less dogmatic than most of his opponents and some of his followers expected ...

[Reagan] had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement. He didn’t come close to achieving it and didn’t try very hard, recognizing early that the public would be happy to have its taxes cut as long as its programs weren’t touched. And Reagan was a poor steward of the unglamorous but necessary operations of the state. Wilentz notes that he presided over a period of corruption and favoritism, encouraging hostility toward government agencies and “a general disregard for oversight safeguards as among the evils of ‘big government.’ In this, and in a notorious attempt to expand executive power outside the Constitution—the Iran-Contra affair—Reagan’s Presidency presaged that of George W. Bush.

The neglect of the unglamorous business of government would not have been a problem of traditional, paternalistic Conservatism. Might it prove a rather frequent unintended consequence of what could otherwise be a positive enthusiasm for 'big society' politics?

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