McWokeyism goes up in flames

A bonfire of vanity projects so beloved of previous States Assemblies has been kindled by senior politicians as Policy and Resources prepares to unveil a Guernsey Action Plan aimed at helping the many, not the lobby group few. Richard Digard highlights what to look out for

ON WEDNESDAY, and more formally in the Billet d’Etat next month, we should get a much clearer idea of just how different this government – on the basis that the Assembly backs its proposals – plans to be from its predecessors of the last 12 years or so.

Out will go touchy-feely, nice to have. The end, as Policy & Resources president Peter Ferbrache told the Chamber of Commerce the other day, of McWokeyism, navel gazing, vanity project after vanity project and moral righteousness.

Policy and Resources president Peter Ferbrache and Deputy Heidi Soulsby – the island’s first female deputy chief minister. (29140009)

In will come proposals providing clearly defined financial, social and environmental benefits. And yes, before you ask, I do think that the previous States’ disability/discrimination package should be reviewed and challenged on a cost-benefit basis as part of this process of awakening political realism.

From Chamber’s point of view, and that of many other businesses, adopting and adapting the Jersey discrimination legislation makes more sense than the intensely lobbied ‘define your own disability’ package Guernsey has embarked upon and would mean many organisations are already compliant.

Also overdue for putting down in my view is the wildly expensive ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ review of public sector salaries, which has been costed at adding an additional £35m.-£40m. a year to government costs but with no obvious taxpayer benefit.

I don’t know how precisely spelled out in public the proposed departure from McWokeyism will be, but the essence of Policy & Resources’ new broom approach to public finances and getting the island back on its feet post-Covid will be outlined in a statement to the Assembly by Deputy Heidi Soulsby – the island’s first female deputy chief minister – on what she’s been doing since the general election in October.

It’s a lot. And to explain how potentially significant the changes are, I need to set out how sclerotic – and to anyone used to working in the private sector, just plain daft – the States’ way of working currently is.

Two documents do that particularly well: something called Overview of the Process to Draft New or Amend Existing Legislation, and States of Guernsey Outstanding Resolutions provide a delightful (unless you’re ultimately paying for it) insight into the knee-jerk yet simultaneously glacial process of government.

So, for example, the States decided in 2009 as a priority that the island needed a vetting and barring scheme for people working with children and vulnerable adults. Sensible enough. But here we are more than a decade later and the law’s only at stage three (drafting) and there are another five hurdles to cross before it can be enacted.

Elsewhere, Economic Development has stuff relating to patents and trademarks going back to 2002. You might question how relevant that is today – we’ve done without it for nearly 20 years after all – yet it remains in the system. Some poor Prodnose in St James’s Chambers periodically pulls out the file, dips his quill, drafts a bit more and then replaces it as other priorities (patents’ and trade marks’ urgency is ‘low’) push it back down the dusty heap.

But, ladies and gentlemen, there is no escape. Once started, the juggernaut rolls on. It’s why a 2006 decision to ban bull-bars on the front of vehicles is still on Environment & Infrastructure’s to-do list even though many now come factory-fitted as standard and the clamour to outlaw them has long gone.

So P&R’s decision to cull many of these so-called extant resolutions – instructions by the States to do something – is as refreshing as it’s overdue. P&R alone found it had around 200. Deputy Soulsby in her first pass has put more than a quarter on the kill list. Others will follow.

The States as a whole has more than 500. Not many, I’m told, will survive, especially where the rationale behind the original instruction is poor. As in equal pay. ‘Pointless navel-gazing,’ one States member told me.

As an aside, have you ever wondered how it’s possible for a committee to labour away on a policy initiative only for the P&R of the day to shoot it down on cost or purpose grounds and for there then to be an unseemly punch-up in public in the States as the department toughs out implementing its pet policy?

That, too, should disappear. Instead, the States is set to become more joined up under a Guernsey Action Plan in which all activity – capital expenditure, public sector transformation, revive and thrive and legislation – is pulled together, prioritised and budgeted on its financial, social and environmental benefits.

The new approach was outlined to deputies last Thursday, when the principal committees were asked to prioritise their own activities and shortlist them to assist the island’s economic recovery. And two other changes have been introduced to facilitate this.

The first is P&R holding regular meetings with the presidents of the main departments, so there’s a better understanding of government direction and committee priorities and how these can be aligned. The second is that individual members of P&R have been appointed as project sponsors or brand ambassadors to help facilitate policy development by departments.

This is particularly important on a ‘no surprises’ basis and in ensuring that the work of the States is joined up and directed to a particular purpose – at this time, getting the island back on its feet and its finances restored.

Apologies if this piece appears unusually gushing for me but what chief minister Peter Ferbrache and his colleagues intend to do holds out the best prospect in decades for the States to break away from the individual member hobby politics of the past and instead try to make life better for the many, not the lobby group few.

Even better, it’s being implemented pragmatically through talking to colleagues and getting them onside, and without any grand plan or laboriously produced strategy document. A bit more like the States of old, when the ability to pay – or not – drove everything. Well, we’re not there yet, but there are grounds for optimism and it’s years since I’ve been able to say that in print.

The other thing to note is the unifying Guernsey Action Plan is set to be released on 9 February, little more than three months since the general election, for debate in March. Contrast that with previous States Strategic Plans and, more recently, The Future Guernsey initiative (‘We will be among the happiest and healthiest places in the world…’ etc etc), which came out months after committees had already decided and started on their own agendas, and it’s further evidence of the change of direction.

What I can also tell you is the civil service has been quite challenged by this. Being pushed at pace and expected to meet politically imposed deadlines is unsettling in a world where ‘progress’ on a new law can be measured in years. That said, politicians are pleased by the response to their demands and some officials even appear to enjoy the new sense of drive and purpose.

So, as I say, there’s a lot more to do before we can be certain that the promised change has indeed arrived. But on balance, I’d say 2021 could be quite exciting – and not just because mass vaccinations have started.

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