30 January 2007

Trust the locals

The current ‘Economist’, in an article entitled Trust the Locals (subscription), talks about the usual British response to being diagnosed as ill-governed: an ‘endless cycle of restructuring followed by disappointment followed by more restructuring.’ The journal proposes an alternative: ‘the centre could be forced to do less and local government trusted a little more.’

I agree. Social problems, when reduced to single quantifiable indicators, such as ‘unemployment’, ‘crime’, or ‘illiteracy’ might have the illusion of being uniform across a country. The tendency, especially for remote policymakers, is to dream up solutions that are similarly monolithic. So the usual response is the bureaucratic one: something imposed from the top down, on a one-size-fits-all basis. Something cumbersome and unresponsive to events, and incapable of adapting to wildly varying circumstances across a diverse country. One result is that, in Britain, as the 'Economist' says:

[W]hen the government is searching for new ideas it always has to look abroad (usually to less centralised places such as America), since councils in Britain have little freedom to experiment with new ways of doing things.
I’d like to see Social Policy Bonds issued, because they would bring about still more devolution: from the public to the private sector. My reasons are not inspired by blind ideology, but because enlarging and motivating the pool of people interested in solving social problems would make their solution both more likely and more cost-effective. The benefits of this sort of contracting out would, I think, be incalculable.

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