Guernsey Press

States needs to look past pandemic to be successful

Having burst into action in response to the pandemic, the States now has to refocus and direct its energies in more than one direction, says Nick Mann

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The Royal Court building, where the States of Deliberation meets. (29344241)

PUBLIC discourse is dominated by the pandemic.

This States had hardly got its feet under the table before lockdown hit and everyone’s attention shifted with it, but we need to refocus and look in more than one direction.

Back in November, Policy & Resources announced a series of initiatives that it wanted to move on, promising reports back or action within three months.

There was always a sense that this was more about presentation than substance, the need as a new administration to be seen to be doing things and doing them quicker and better than what went before.

It was always thus with each new States.

And each new States tends to go through the same evolution.

Throw off the baggage of the previous term by reminding everyone what they did not do, not what they did, and adopt a collegiate approach where everyone will merrily work together, which holds easily while there is nothing of substance to actually be debated and decided upon.

A master plan will be agreed promising to give direction to the term’s work and priorities, but it will be rather nebulous, will mean all things to all people, and lack any real detail or costings.

The workload will ramp up, with a series of reviews and reports being triggered while at the same time rubber stamping and taking credit for policies agreed long ago so it looks like things are happening.

Gradually all the bonhomie that came in the glow of an election erodes, deputies get frustrated and realise that when it comes to the crunch there are many things they simply do not agree on. Unpopular decisions get pushed further and further down the road and then get watered down.

We hear promises of government reform, of savings, of doing more for less.

We get tinkering, tax rises, and dodgy accounting.

There are successes to be celebrated, but there is also the mounting feeling that more could have been done and a massive in-tray is passed on down the line.

So what will this administration do differently to break the cycle of indifference, and live up to their own catchphrase of ‘action today’, while not forgetting the big ticket issues such as obesity and an ageing demographic?

We have been promised a laser-like focus on important issues, real prioritisation so time is not wasted – if it is achieved that can only be a good thing.

The current economic situation creates an interesting clash of traditional political philosophies.

There is a real need for government investment, and we have seen an unprecedented amount of public money being ploughed into keeping businesses alive during the pandemic.

But this is a States which contains many who want small government and spending restraint.

No administration has had to start its term with the money taps open so widely in an attempt to create a platform for economic recovery and growth.

None will also have had to face the huge pressure of needing to raise revenue to cover that – to balance the books – at the same time.

There is clearly no simple answer, but the next iteration of the Government Work Plan and the Budget that comes at the end of this year needs to start a journey towards balancing the books and the discussion about the tax base is more pressing than ever before.

Promises of public sector reform need to be delivered with more speed than has been evident before – it was always meant to be part of the deal with the taxpayer when the government came to dip into their back pockets.

This was rightly highlighted back in November, but there is a danger that projects like this get derailed or watered down because it is easier to raise money than save it.

Reform and action is clearly possible because that is exactly what happened when Covid-19 arrived on these shores.

We need to take that momentum forward, not let the virus become the go-to for not doing something or anything else.

There will be enormous pressure on the public sector because it will also be playing catch-up on the ground.

That could, for example, be in ensuring children whose education has been so badly disrupted are given the platform to thrive, or looking at health services and ensuring that illnesses are not going undiagnosed, to cutting waiting lists back down to targets so that people are not in pain for any longer than they should be.

One of the downfalls of past States has been to end up constantly fire-fighting, unable to see beyond the smoke to future years and plan medium or long term.

It is why issues such as wholesale education reform, or tackling the obesity crisis, do not get dealt with.

That trait could be particularly acute this time around as so much energy is spent on managing Covid, on ‘action today’, but the administration needs to get its head up and looking forward at the same time to be truly successful.