Government policy? Get Gavin

HERE’S a thought for you: how much worse does it have to get before Guernsey decides to do things differently? Before islanders and their elected representatives look around and say, ‘you know, this really isn’t giving us the results we want or need’?

(Picture by Adrian Miller, 26487737)
(Picture by Adrian Miller, 26487737)

The reason I ask is because the governance report providing Policy & Resources with an unsurprisingly clean bill of health is just the latest in a long line highlighting the deficiencies of the governmental system itself.

We’re probably into double figures now but despite a succession of eminent and independent folk pointing out that you wouldn’t run the proverbial whelk stall the way Guernsey manages its affairs, nothing changes.

To be frank, it’s embarrassing. Professor Catherine Staite’s latest report lays bare the manifest failures of ‘the system’ and also of many of those who populate it.

These deficiencies – endemic to committee-based operations where power is widely diffused but ineffectively scrutinised – are well understood but remain unchanged despite nearly two decades of complaints about them.

All of which means we have a ‘senior committee’ charged with leading and coordinating what the States is supposed to do but with no levers or sanctions at its disposal to deal with issues of incompetence or bad behaviour. Or even to lead effectively on policy co-ordination.

To make it work, the island’s committee system would need to be underpinned by strong relationships of trust between other committees and P&R. That would also involve effective collaboration, strong leadership and good communications.

Above all, said Professor Staite, it would require a shared purpose to which all States members were firmly committed. As she notes, ‘That is not currently the case’.

Recent debates ‘clearly demonstrate’ that the focus of the Assembly is more on challenging the role of P&R itself than with government policy direction and prioritisation.

It’s a pretty damning observation about this States, but one which many islanders would recognise as accurate. Translated, it emerges in the Assembly as a ‘get Gavin’ attitude when Deputy St Pier and P&R attempt to provide some direction.

Academic and practical evidence available shows that committee systems consistently have problems because no one really knows where power and accountability lies.

They also have problems with effective decision-making and organisational agility – again, something islanders instinctively see as failures in the case of the States – which is why most UK local authorities have adopted an executive cabinet and scrutiny model.

So what seems unarguable from the Staite report and others before it (including a review of the role of the States as employer and the airport firefighters’ tribunal of inquiry) is that the current system at best is designed to struggle to function properly.

These inherent weaknesses can, to a degree, be overcome. But that would require deputies taking collective responsibility for a shared set of priorities. In addition, Guernsey’s politicians would have to demonstrate behaviours that were collaborative, not competitive; collegiate, not maverick; selfless, not self-serving; and considered, not impetuous.

Professor Staite also says that a high level of collective political competence is vital. Disturbingly, however, she says that ‘the necessary skills and behaviours are not currently demonstrated consistently by enough Guernsey deputies to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the committee system, as it operates in the States of Guernsey’.

She adds: ‘It is not possible to place all the responsibility for the perceived decline in standards of behaviour on the power vacuum at the heart of the political structure, but it is likely that it is, at least in part, a consequence of this structure.’

If you regard what deputies do as in any way relevant to your life or how government operates as having any bearing on the future of the island, this is profoundly depressing.

As we wake up today to learn what direction a Brexit-weary UK voted to travel in – and there are significant challenges for these islands whatever the outcome – we know our own government is inadequately constructed to deal with them.

Worse, we know from the report that our elected representatives (collectively, for there are some stand-out good ones) have no interest in pulling together for the long-term benefit of the island or even supporting P&R when it attempts to do so.

And in case you feel I’m over-emphasising this, the evidence is solid, says Prof. Staite.

The ‘golden thread’ of strategic planning that’s supposed to underpin good governance and the criteria of clarity of purpose and effectiveness is missing because the P&R Plan, which should provide it, isn’t up to the task.

Policy & Resources tried to address that in June, but was voted down.

As Prof. Staite notes, ‘Presidents of all other committees have decided not to follow a consistent template for their updates about delivery of the P&R Plan, and this suggests that an instinct to operate in silos is still much stronger than the drive to collaborate.’

The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, committees can get away with it. Secondly, States members do not want to be subject to any sense of discipline. They want to be free to behave as they see fit and propose policies that please them rather than fit into any strategic framework.

Disturbing stuff. But since those who could amend the system clearly like things as they are, nothing much is going to change unless something happens to force them to do so.

Hence my opening question: how much worse do things have to get to provide that impetus?

Yet as far as we can tell, there’s little public enthusiasm for executive government and lots of attachment to independent deputies, especially anti-establishment boat-rockers.

At the same time, we learn from P&R’s fiscal framework that the effects of zero-10 have been mitigated and the amount of tax as a percentage of GDP has been pretty constant for the last 20 years.

Only now, as yet another report about the poor performance of Guernsey government hits the in-trays, are we faced with substantial tax increases to pay for that underperformance and years of piling on costs, based on policies of ideological purity rather than genuine island need.

But despite all this, there’s still no demand for change, no long-overdue recognition of what’s required. The need for reform was identified in the Harwood Report before the fudged ‘reforms’ of 2004. Since then, of course, things have steadily declined.

So you really do wonder what it’s going to take to break the current circle of complacency.

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