07 March 2006

No, I'm not bitter

Private sector operators have objective measures of their success: profits or sales, survival or expansion of their enterprise. When there’s no objective measure of achievement, as in most government activities, anything will do. Sometimes the gap is filled by a plethora of Mickey Mouse micro-targets, usually thought up in response to media stories: hospital waiting lists, for example, which administrative staff become adept at massaging to look better than they are. In the branch of the New Zealand public service for which I used to work, middle managers ‘succeed’ by implementing a restructuring. Nobody monitors these numberless restructurings to see if they actually enhance performance. That’s partly because performance itself means little more than toeing the line, ticking off ‘to-do’ items dictated by politicians: certainly in New Zealand and possibly in the UK, the status of top civil servants has been eroded, even as their pay has increased rapidly. Typically they now work under short-term contracts. Strategy, if it’s considered at all is up to the politicians, in the very short intervals when they are not fire-fighting, campaigning or asleep.

Adherence to an ideology, and gesture politics are other stand-ins when there are no other criteria by which to judge success or failure. I think that’s one reason market solutions are virulently opposed when applied to the achievement of social and environmental goals. I talk to quite a few well-meaning people who instinctively react against the Social Policy Bond principle, simply because bondholders, be they institutions or people, would make a profit if they help achieve social goals. Ideological soundness trumps effectiveness every time.

I used simplistically to summarise Social Policy Bonds as ‘right-wing’ methods of achieving ‘left-wing’ goals. In my naivety I thought such a description would appeal to the ideologues on both sides. But being an ideologue in the field of public policy seems to be more about bonding with your cohorts and uniting against non-believers than actually achieving public goals. The result? Social Policy Bonds end up appealing neither to the left or the right.

And so it goes on: major global challenges: climate change; nuclear proliferation; conflict in Africa and the Middle East; all are now entirely politicised. The last thing anybody cares about are the interests of real people. Policy is subordinated to ideology, appearances, and meaningless bureaucratic processes - just as in national politics. Where self-interest does operate in the public sector it takes the form of venality. Social Policy Bonds were devised as a way of channelling self-interest into the public good. Under the current regime self-interest actually works against our global survival, just as it already cripples the prospects of many countries in the third world and has condemned millions to death in futile conflicts.

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