For a few months, everything seemed to be coming up roses for the coalition, and if you judge the state of the nation purely from headline economic figures, it still is. Growth is racing ahead, unemployment is at a five-year low, personal debt is stabilising, and consumer spending on almost everything is up. So why is the public mood still sullen?
One obvious reason is the persistence of low pay, and the low productivity and morale that go with it. Maybe, though, there is another answer. Even if the government has cracked the economy, it has failed - despite hopeful signs at the beginning - to crack the question of competence. Since the glorious surprise of the 2012 London Olympics, where everything came in on time and on budget and worked - everything, that is, except the private subcontractors, G4S -
It's not just
We have heard the chief inspector of prisons,
More than 700,000 people, we are told, are still waiting for their assessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP), and MPs have been bombarded with complaints from constituents anxious about their holidays because of a backlog of 30,000 passport applications. Nor has the re-designation of the
There is an easy explanation for some of this, which you will hear from public sector staff and their trade unions: it's the cuts, only the cuts. And there is a seductive neatness about an argument that links better economic figures with slimmed-down government and deteriorating services.
But this explanation is too easy. When you consider, say, the inquest into
Deregulation and outsourcing are not unique to this government. New Labour was at least as keen on the concept, as a way of introducing private sector efficiency. As so often, though, there have been unintended consequences. What has manifested is an edifice of extraordinary complexity that propagates mini-empires, where those nominally in charge have no real power to make things happen.
Where services have been outsourced, the role of civil servants should have changed, with commissioning and monitoring the primary function. Often this change has not happened, or if it has, civil servants lack the skills or the inclination to meet the new demands (remember West Coast Main Line?).
A limited reversal is under way. An end to the outsourcing of school inspections had already been announced before the
Competence requires a clear chain of command and well-defined responsibilities. It requires staff who are not afraid to take, and defend, decisions. It means no duplication and no passing things to and fro; it means no papers lost or mislaid. The recent good economic figures testify to competence in one narrow area, but people will not start feeling better until competence in government extends much further down the line.
Mary Dejevsky is a writer and former foreign correspondent
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