This is happening in the UK, but I bet its far worse in the US. A country where billions are paid out on useless projects which end up being dumped.
Welcome to a week in the life of the Home Office. On Monday it was “super Asbos” (yet again) to crack down on crime without bothering judges. On Tuesday two Islamic groups were banned under new speech censorship powers. On Wednesday came a “top level purge” of disloyal Home Office officials. On Thursday we had 8,000 more prison places, a 10% increase, to accommodate “violent and dangerous prisoners”, and longer sentences for rapists and paedophiles. On Friday we had army boot camps back again to toughen up young prisoners and more summary justice by police on the street. This is the new Britain.
The arrival of John Reid at the Home Office has elevated the HGI (headline-grabbing initiative) into a medieval book of hours. For the past eight years July has brought the same “rebalancing” of the criminal law, the same get tough measures against criminals (vicious murderers and rapists, as Reid calls the entire prison population) and affirmations that last year’s HGIs were palpably inadequate.
This is desperate stuff, proving only that Reid is not a strong minister but a man in thrall to his press. His daily antics must humiliate whatever shred of intellectual respectability still hangs about his shell-shocked department.
The sheer repetitiveness of Home Office HGIs shows their irrelevance to what may (or may not) be wrong with law and order in Britain. Not one minister in this government has the guts to stand up to the tabloid press, invariably cited as a proxy for public opinion. Public administration has become a long-running performance of The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
For all this the worm is beginning to turn. If only out of exhaustion the system seems to be rejecting the present government’s overriding HGI culture. Recent months have seen a lengthening list of initiatives shrinking as if removed from political life support.
Last week a costly attempt to nanny the private housing market collapsed under the politically challenged minister Yvette Cooper, famous for her unreadable white papers. She had been warned from the start that her compulsory “home improvement packs” were expensive and redundant aids to house purchase. Yet she pressed on, encouraging some £250m to be invested in duplicating private surveys.
With nowhere near enough inspectors recruited the prospect was of sudden stasis this autumn in the housing market, apart from the added cost of Cooper’s housing stealth tax — £800-£1,000 per pack. Only last week did she admit defeat. The packs will now be voluntary and therefore pointless.
Meanwhile, across Whitehall tents are folding and caravans departing in the night. At education Tony Blair had to abandon Lord Adonis’s dream of a personal grammar school sector to rival local comprehensives (though religious selection remains).
Last week Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, had to drop a bizarre advertisement inviting private sector firms to run the £64 billion worth of local National Health Service trusts. This giant leap towards privatisation was called a “drafting error” by Lord Warner, her junior minister, and was withdrawn. The much-delayed NHS computer, its cost rising towards £20 billion, is slithering towards disaster as doctors, never consulted, claim to have no use for it.
Round at the Treasury, £2 billion in overpaid tax credits to poor people has had to be written off because computers cannot recoup them without turning a poverty trap into a bankruptcy one. The same department last December walked away from an exotic plan to allow tax relief on second homes for pension plans. Having ignored all warnings that the scheme was a tax dodge, Gordon Brown performed a U-turn weeks before the start of the tax year and cost millions in wasted advice.
A similar onset of sanity appears to have taken hold even of the Home Office. This month Reid formally abandoned the plan considered vital by Charles Clarke, his predecessor, to cut 43 police forces to 17. A reform said to save up to 25,000 police jobs and millions of pounds in administration was then said to cost anything between £175m and £1 billion to implement. Such stupefying sums seem to come and go unaudited.
At the same time the Home Office indicated that its much-vaunted ID cards are to be both postponed and reassessed. At £6 billion and rising (possibly to £12 billion), any concept of value for money has long departed. For that sort of money, said one Whitehall wit, Blair could wipe out every terrorist base in Afghanistan and still have cash to spare for a national DNA database.
Westminster gossip attributes this retrenchment to the waning status of the prime minister and Brown’s rising star. Yet almost all the HGIs now in retreat fell within the purview of Brown’s Treasury. Its own catalogue of failed initiatives is as long as any, embracing e-universities, individual learning accounts, baby credits, Tube privatisation and so-called “Gershon cuts”. A more plausible reason for the retreat is that the managerial ideology of the government’s early reformism, of salvation through high-tech innovation, just never delivered.
The huge mainframe computers sold to gullible ministers and laundered through the “Office of Government Commerce” have never worked as promised. In most cases billions of pounds have gone up in unaudited smoke. At the Home Office alone, the prison service cannot keep tabs on released prisoners or talk to departments dealing with probation or immigration or asylum or even the police. The whole sales pitch of computers — joined-up government — was nonsense.
E-government was the application of technology to an insoluble problem, the straightening by government of Kant’s crooked timber of mankind. This was well demonstrated last month when an official was asked how many illegal immigrants there were in Britain. He pointed out that the question was impossible to answer, like the number of “failed asylum seekers” at large. He was excoriated for stating the obvious.
The same obscurity surrounds “police reported crime figures” published last week. These have nothing to do with crime and everything to do with police station closures, call centres and record keeping, and with the shifting definitions of crime. People are so brainwashed by the cult of statistics as to be innumerate when it comes to assessing them.
The onset of Whitehall realism suggests a loss of faith in the mechanistic arrogance with which Blair’s government took office. His mindset saw facts as things stuffed in at one end of a silo while policies were “delivered” at the other. His personal disillusion was already clear from his “scars on my back” speech in 1999. Yet for six years he was at sea, dragged hither and thither by fee-hungry bankers, consultants and computer salesmen.
Like Brown, Blair trusted private sector consultants rather than civil servants because they were richer. He could not understand that a ready fee distorts advice. A decade of NHS reorganisation consumed a doubling of real expenditure yet delivered the mass closure of local general hospitals and the collapse of out-of-hours GP services.
An excellent BBC radio documentary on the Home Office last Thursday presented it as the typical postmodern department of state. Its concern was not with promoting the economy but with such intangibles as the public’s sense of security. As such it was institutionally vulnerable to high-profile failure, always under pressure to play safe. It was expected to guard civil liberty and yet to keep in check the forces of darkness.
These days it seems to have sided all too readily with darkness. Terrorised by the tabloid papers, Reid and his predecessors have never knowingly uttered a liberal word and seem to delight in infuriating the Home Office’s pet villains: judges, prison reformers, human rights campaigners and “bleeding hearts”. As Reid delights in his tabloid reviews he knows that his policies of prison-cramming and judge-bashing are charlatan. But what the hell if they are popular and drive the Tories farther to the right (away from all hope of a Liberal Democrat coalition).
To this a sensible public has only one recourse, now increasingly in evidence. It is that HGI government simply does not work. Rushed and ill-conceived initiatives fail. Sanity has the best tunes in the end. For that at least we can thank that humble home improvement pack.
Whoever stole the Sun, put it back and we'll drop all the charges!