A reviewer’s guide to better government

YOU’LL have seen from the news this week that a petition to persuade the States to embark on a wide-ranging review to improve the structure of government has been withdrawn. In part, that’s because Gavin St Pier and his Policy & Resources apparatchiks said there was a real risk of the debate degenerating into unseemly levels of navel-gazing.

‘Consensus’ is something to be worked towards, with an agreed Policy and Resource Plan at its core. (Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock)
‘Consensus’ is something to be worked towards, with an agreed Policy and Resource Plan at its core. (Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock)

OK, that’s my summary, but Deputy Heidi Soulsby and her fellow requerants appear to have heeded the advice that – with island-wide voting around the corner and (whisper it softly) perhaps even political parties – now is not the right time to do so.

Unpick this a bit and two things hit you. Firstly, most agree the current system isn’t producing the results islanders want, need or expect. States members themselves are frustrated with the latest raft of changes, which effectively decouple fiscal considerations from political ones.

That’s a polite way of saying the Policy and Resource Plan’s a joke. Yes, we know we’re aiming to be among the happiest and healthiest places in the world but no one knows what we need to do to get there, how much we have to spend, or on what, in order to arrive.

Committees also feel strongly they are now subject to ‘mushroom management’: kept in the dark and fed sh... well you get the idea. That’s because there’s no forum for committee heads to interact with P&R, unlike the old Policy Council days. Communications filter through officials and committees no longer have a chief officer of their own and so lack regular and reliable advice from a Sir Humphrey-like figure.

The second thing to note is that the States is the worst body possible to review its own workings. To confirm this, just look at the matrix P&R produced summarising the committee objections to the Soulsby requete: based on self-interest and silo reinforcement.

Don’t blame them too much, poor things; it’s a consequence of group-think, conditioning and political self-preservation. Going native, if you will, which is why an external review is essential if meaningful reforms are ever to emerge.

Stand back a bit and you’ll see the question isn’t about what tweaks to make to improve the current, 70-year-old, already much modified, system. It’s how best to run a closed community of 63,000 souls largely dependent for their lunch money on what we call financial services but everyone else prefers to call a tax haven and when there’s already high levels of health and wealth inequality.

What I didn’t touch on the other week in Deputy St Pier’s ‘you can have it all’ message to the States was his conditional rider: ‘To do so, though, is going to require… planning and discipline… It may be dull. It may be painful. But it is effective.’

Where, one wonders, is that planning and discipline to be found? Government has already hit capacity constraints. That’s why not much is getting done. That and red-tape issues in releasing money for capital expenditure mean we’re well behind in infrastructure investment – and we’re not even sure how to remove the 11-plus and give our kids a decent education afterwards.

What used to be seen as a strength – consensus government – is now used shamelessly as a tool to re-debate and if possible overturn every mildly contentious issue as members seek either to get their own way or humiliate Policy & Resources.

So any external reviewer’s first task is to articulate what we need from elected representatives to keep the ship of state on course. It follows from this that barriers to entry – probably implied rather than actual – are required (‘ability to read and write essential… team player with strong interpersonal skills… suitable for those with exceptional logical, rational, and analytic powers…’)

This isn’t fanciful by the way. Having spoken to any number of reviewers, consultants and local government experts over the years, they all expressed amazement that the island has no filter system when it comes to ushering deputies into the Assembly.

The other essential a review would highlight is a credible business plan that’s achievable and prioritised – not the current 20-strong wish list where everything has an equal weighting but no funding or timetable.

It would also be rewriting the deputies’ code of conduct to emphasise that ‘consensus’ is something to be worked towards, with an agreed Policy and Resource Plan at its core, not something to be weaponised to block, frustrate or derail States business for self-advancement.

Unsurprisingly, the Code of Conduct Panel would also come in for scrutiny and be beefed up so electors have comfort that their elected representatives are indeed working within the agreed parameters and to desired ends. Equally, it would be robust enough to provide members with protection from vexatious or ‘political’ complaints to support them in doing a difficult and usually thankless job.

In this, the reviewers would be guided by a number of senior States members who already note that it is the values and behaviours of politicians that have more effect on the quality and effectiveness of government than any system.

It’s another reason why greater use should be made of non-States members on committees, both to increase (and regularly refresh) skills on those teams but also to modify behaviours and help keep them task-focused and civilised.

Assuming the reviewers did come up with something like this, a couple of things would strike you.

Firstly, no mention of executive or ministerial government. The consensus model – probably uniquely in the developed, democratic world – would continue. And secondly, the reforms wouldn’t work particularly well with political parties. I suppose it might in a loose grouping without party discipline, where individual members remained under a code of conduct duty to work towards achieving consensus; but not in a whipped opposition-type environment.

Depending on your point of view, that’s possibly a good outcome as, with the exception of one Community Party member many years ago and the Guernsey Labour Group, also a long while back, the island doesn’t really do political parties.

So we can agree with P&R that a root-and-branch review ahead of island-wide voting is simply too soon until we see whether we’ve reached some sort of electoral sunlit upland or a fresh hell of ungovernability.

What the reviewers would point out, however, is that making things better is actually pretty easy. Why? Because if government isn’t working well now, that’s entirely down to States members themselves.

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