By John Henwood
HAVING been a member of the Review Panel on the Machinery of Government (aka Clothier) I share responsibility for recommending the move to ministerial government which came about in 2005. Of course, there were many other recommendations, some of which were implemented while others were not. It would be easy to claim that if the States had accepted the whole package as Clothier recommended rather than cherry-picking the bits they liked, then the machinery of government would be working much better today than is the case, but it is impossible to say what might have happened, if only.
It is popular among some, including regular contributors to this newspaper, to blame ministerial government for everything that has not gone as they would have wished, but those who do so are either misguided or have short memories. The committee system worked reasonably well in the days of honorary politics, but began to be ineffective when States members were paid; after that it was not long until we had States members who saw politics as a career opportunity. It is still often said that some States members could not find similarly remunerated employment in any other occupation. The advent of paid politics was the beginning of the end of government by committee. One of the inherent problems of the committee system was the very thing its advocates mistakenly believe was its strength – it involved all States members in government. Far from that achieving consensus it led to conflicts of interest and issues being shuffled around like pass-the-parcel with very little getting done. Each committee was a law unto itself with no obligation to follow previously agreed States policy. As Clothier pointed out, ‘Proper government is not possible if there is no requirement for committees to follow policies or guidelines already agreed’. At that time an extensive public survey was carried out on our government model; it reported this response: ‘Residents do not consider that the committees work well together, they think there are too many of them, and that the States lack leadership and take too long to make decisions’. Today one might be tempted to substitute ‘ministries’ for ‘committees’ and say very little has changed.
Critics of ministerial government also tend to forget Clothier’s recommendation included a two-part replacement for committee government. Along with ministers and a cabinet there would be balancing panels of scrutineers whose combined role was to act as a critical friend of government. Sadly, that part of the equation has not worked as well as envisaged. All too often, rather than helping government to get it right the Scrutiny function has been adversarial and at times acted as outright opposition. Some Scrutiny committees do it better than others, often depending on leadership, but overall, the function has been rather negative. As some States Members have discovered, it is easier to criticise and condemn than construct and create.
That seems to be the case before us. The former chief scrutineer is now Chief Minister and appears to be finding the transition challenging. States Members returned from their Easter holiday on 18 April when just 31 active propositions awaited their return. Fewer than half are the work of ministers, the majority coming from Scrutiny panels and backbenchers. To date, many government propositions have been about scrapping or amending something previously agreed. It is easy to perceive the Chief Minister and some of her cabinet are still looking back, correcting what they regard as mistakes of the previous lot, rather than looking ahead and creating policies of their own.
In the UK at the start of each parliament the government sets out a comprehensive policy agenda in the Queen’s (in future the King’s) speech. There is no equivalent here and in the absence of a strategic programme government becomes reactive, moved by current events rather than a long-term plan. And that brings me on to the recent issues surrounding the resignation of the government chief executive. If half of what I hear is true, and I always heavily discount the value of rumour, there are serious issues of conflict in the higher echelons of the administration. A whistleblower told ITV of a toxic atmosphere in Broad Street, but it is worth noting that some who blow the whistle may have an axe to grind. All the rumour and speculation could be without substance, but if uncomplimentary things are said about someone or something, there is probably a good reason for it.
It would appear there is confusion in some quarters as to the proper respective roles of politician and executive. When there is no strategic plan for the chief executive to work toward or when ministers are unduly influenced by short-term events the chief executive tends to be pulled this way and that according to the issue of the day. This may be because the minister is out of his or her depth, unable to provide effective leadership and overly involved with operational matters. In all these circumstances tensions will occur.
The blurring of lines between lawmakers and administrators is not new. Clothier heard evidence of it over 20 years ago and reported thus: ‘The vacuum at the centre of the machinery of government has resulted in many important decisions of policy being taken by civil servants while the politicians occupy themselves with details of administration… the lack of effective control leads to wasting time on trivial matters which should be left to civil servants in pursuance of policy laid down for them… elected representatives are frequently too busy with details of administration to have time to develop policy.’ Is that where we are now? If so, responsibility for this role reversal may rest with politicians who lack necessary judgment. Instead of concentrating on policy they get involved in the details of administration, metaphorically looking over senior civil servants’ shoulders and trying to direct them. It is not a one-way street though: some civil servants are deeply committed to resisting uncomfortable change.
Ministerial government, working as originally envisaged, should have corrected these problems, so why are we having these difficulties today? Meaning well and having the best intentions is not enough. We need people of exceptional ability and wider experience (but devoid of self-importance) at the heart of government. We want leaders who can make difficult decisions based on sound judgment and can communicate them effectively. That sort of individual is unlikely to be a professional politician who has little experience of life outside politics.
Along with identifying problems goes the requirement to find solutions. Here is a suggestion: there was a time when those we elected (and who made Jersey great) did it for nothing other than the satisfaction of making our Island a better place for everyone. We can’t go back to honorary politics, but we desperately need the qualities that marked that era. So why not tap into the huge reservoir of skills and experience within the community among those who, for various reasons, do not want to go into politics. Government could be advised and supported by a small, non-political, panel of local individuals experienced and successful in the ways of the world. There are people of substance who would gladly help pro bono (from the Latin meaning ‘for the public good’) restoring the element missing from the best of the old honorary committee system.