Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Letter from London

Magazine article Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Letter from London

Article excerpt

Is the Public Service too 'Efficient'?

Last time I wrote, I knew-along with everyone else from Prime Minister Tony Blair down-that there would be a general election on 3 May. But none of us had bargained for foot and mouth disease, and it was postponed until 7 June.

The election campaign is too depressing to write about. Mr Blair set the tone by the way he announced it, in front of a captive audience of schoolgirls, few if any of whom were old enough to vote. That didn't matter, because he spoke-literally-over their heads to the television cameras. The girls, with their pretty faces and shiny hair and happy hymn-singing, were just scenery. The worst thing is that I'm sure Mr Blair believes, perfectly sincerely, that he abhors the exploitation of children.

The campaign then settled down to the usual half-truths about taxation, education, healthcare, immigration, and the `European superstate', enlivened by the occasional scuffle when a voter found a politician.

Something that should be an issue, but isn't, is administrative competence. In the good old days, people thought that Britain had a `RollsRoyce' of a public service: silent, powerful, and dependable. That was always myth-but nowadays you really have to doubt whether our government and public service could raffle a chook in a pub.

There are too many examples to present here. The railways; everything to do with MAFF (BSE, food safety, foot and mouth disease, farm policy); the passport agency; the immigration service; the prison service; public service computerization; and so on. We seem to be especially bad at large projects such as the Millennium Dome or the Crossrail project for an eastwest link under London. The latest example is the new National Stadium at Wembley, where no-one can agree on what the stadium should have or who should pay for it. Meanwhile, English soccer finals have to be played in Wales (which is rather like having the National Rugby League finals in Tasmania).

This isn't a complaint against the Labour Government; many of the examples began while the Conservatives were in power. Administrative competence is an issue that should cut across ideological lines: big government or small, what it does should presumably be done well.

An obvious objection is that there's nothing special about Britain, that other countries are just as bad if not worse. …

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