HMS Profligate is ready for turning

Yes, government’s outstanding resolutions – we’re not talking in the ‘exceptionally good’ sense here – show how badly Guernsey’s run. But, says Richard Digard, getting the ship of state on the right course presents its own risks.


REGULAR readers will be aware I’m not especially convinced Guernsey’s very well run or that we’ve had particularly credible governments for, well, I’m not entirely sure how long. The cracks really started to show when economic conditions changed and the previously effortless budget surpluses dried up.

As I’m fond of quoting, the States’ then consultants, Tribal Helm, made the point there was so much money around, ‘a financially profligate culture was able to flourish’.

Beyond that, there was this devastating critique from them: ‘The fundamental economic decision about the allocation of scarce resources was not required. With no competition for resources, departments did not need to demonstrate how effectively they would utilise resources or indeed how effective past expenditure had been in delivering planned outcomes. Operating within this funding environment has meant departments have, in many instances, been able to provide “gold plated” services or indeed services where there is no clear rationale at all for government intervention [my emphasis]. There has also been no imperative to deliver services efficiently.’

That was back in 2009 and, while never challenged by government, doing something meaningful about it has yet to happen. Quite the reverse. The last Assembly actually planned fresh policy expenditure that would require additional annual revenues of £132m. – that’s around £3,300 extra per taxpayer – but with no idea of how it was to be raised.

I know this sounds unbelievable, but it’s true and tells you all you need to know about the inadequacies of the previous States. And we can also use it as a starting point to illustrate some of the difficulties this Assembly has if it’s to turn the ship of state we shall call HMS Profligate.

Bear with me, because this gets a bit technical, as Nick Mann highlighted in his column here last week. You see, the States manages its affairs through things called resolutions: decisions made in debate which direct that things should happen. Big things need legislation, lesser things need committees doing things, but all those things are voluntary.

I trust you’re still with me.

To simplify, as then Bailiff Sir Geoffrey Rowland put it: resolutions are not laws.

They are directions to committees and it is a political decision to what degree a department adheres to that direction.

This is why there are more than 500 States directions roaming around the corridors of power looking for a home. Technically, they’re outstanding resolutions. That’s outstanding in the unresolved sense, not to be confused with ‘exceptionally good’.

Big resolutions need more than one committee to make them happen, which means everyone has a) to agree to implement the resolution in the first place and b) the extent to which they choose to do so. You can see the in-built scope here for ramping up or dialling down. Or, if you add in c) for timescales, whether it gets touched at all.

That’s why some of these orphan resolutions go back to 2000 and why our first female deputy chief minister, Deputy Heidi Soulsby, has committed to tracking down the most infirm ones and putting them out of their misery.

Several things flow from this. In the absence of cabinet or executive government, following instructions is largely voluntary. That’s why alleged rule-keeper-in-chief Home Affairs has action points going back 20 years. And when consultants point out departments are doing stuff they shouldn’t, the decision whether to stop or not rests with the department that implemented the things in the first place.

The other aspect here is speed. If implementing resolutions is effectively optional, it follows that things like deadlines don’t exist. Or, if they do, there are no sanctions for breaking them. So there is no concept of a parliamentary term or implementing commitments within the four-year life of a particular Assembly. It’s also why HMS Profligate sails on, course unchanged, culture untouched and pretty much untroubled by who’s on the bridge in any four-year period.

You’ll appreciate in this climate it’s no coincidence that nine committees, from Policy & Resources to States Assembly & Constitution, have yet to discharge a 2012 mandate to improve governance in the States of Guernsey, while a similar directive against Home Affairs goes back to 2006.

You’ll also see that while executive power technically lies with the States Assembly, implementation (or not) rests firmly with committees, each in their separate silo with their own likes, dislikes and priorities. A system for getting things done it is not.

We can look at the financial consequences of this another day. For now, I hope you’ve concluded that post-Covid Revive and Thrive – or whatever variant chief minister Peter Ferbrache and the Guernsey Party will be going with – requires a lot of buy-in from colleagues to get swift results. Or any results, come to that, when you see the past foot-dragging on the east coast as yet non-project.

Personally, I hope this new Assembly can make the reforms that are needed so HMS Profligate can set a new course and, finally, become responsive to who has the helm and to the prevailing economic conditions. It is, however, a huge undertaking.

Without it, political parties – assuming they remain with us, develop and widen their reach and importance – have no chance of implementing manifesto commitments between elections. Yet with it, that much vaunted Guernsey strength, its stability of government, could change on a single election night.

Put another way, instead of the ability of the States to do anything limited by existing inbuilt inertia and a civil service working to its own timelines, it would transfer instead to the electorate and whatever policies on offer caught their eye.

I don’t say that’s wrong – the last election indicated the people of Guernsey remain pretty sensible folk – but we do need to be clear what it is we’re wishing for.

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