27 October 2010

The problems are systemic

Johann Hari sums it all up in an article about US politics, but which could apply to all the democratic countries:
If you want to run for national office in the US, you have to raise huge sums of money from corporations and very rich people to pay for the adverts and the mailings that get you on the ballot and into office. These corporations will only give you money if you persuade them that you will serve their interests once you are in power. If you say instead that you want to prevent anything destructive they are doing to ordinary people, or tax and regulate them, you will get no money, and can't run. As the Wisconsin politician Ed Garvey puts it: "Even candidates who get into politics with the best of intentions start thinking they can't get re-elected without money. Senators get so reliant on the money that they reflect it; they stop thinking for themselves, stop thinking like the people who elected them. They just worry about getting the money." ...[W]e have to be honest: the continuities with [President George W] Bush are far more pronounced than the differences. The real reason Obama has let us down - and endangered us, 25 October
Against this systemic flaw, what can Social Policy Bonds offer? The clue is in my tag line: Policy as if Outcomes Mattered. The current system is too indirect. Apart from representing our views and raising revenue, government and officials are employed by organisations that are supposed to achieve these goals: government agencies, or contractors working for them. This obscures the relationship between intention and achievement. It's particularly corrosive when there's no correlation between social outcomes and the rewards to the people who are supposed to be achieving them. The system is inherently cynical: if a government agency, at any level, is too successful in, say, reducing crime, or raising literacy, it's likely to shrink in size, with its funding reduced accordingly.

It's no surprise then that, with such a loose connection between government and outcomes, ordinary people are turned off by the whole exercise. Those who do take an interest are those who are paid to: lobbyists, usually employed by large organisations: corporations, trade unions, religious bodies, or government agencies themselves. These organisations have as their overarching goal, not the interests of society, but their own self-perpetuation. Who loses? Ordinary people. Who wins? The wealthy organisations, as Mr Hari elouqently points out.

Social Policy Bonds could help. Under a bond regime, society's goals would have to be declared at the outset. We'd focus on outcomes. Not the structures or funding of government agencies; not the personalities, peccadilloes or ideology of prominent politicians; and not the high-sounding, emotional, appeals to patriotism or other sound-bites, crafted solely to garner votes under an inherently corrupt system. Government's role would be to articulate our goals, and to raise the revenue required to achieve them. But, because our politics would be expressed in terms of outcomes and their costs, ordinary human beings could participate in the policymaking process. And end in itself, but also a way of engendering buy-in - something that we need if we are, as a society, to meet our urgent social and environmental challenges.

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