The Public Accounts Committee is fighting 21 century feudalism

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Ivan Horrocks, for whose thinking I have much regard, wrote this as a comment on the blog this morning, responding to the story about the Public Accounts Committee criticising the role of the Big 4 in creating tax policy. I thought it worth sharing with a broader audience that a post gets:

I’ve been waiting for the PAC to catch up with blogs and comments on this matter that have appeared here over the past year, and now they have. That’s good. But two problems now confront doing anything about this situation.

The first is that the views and opinions of Parliamentary Committees can be – and routinely are – ignored by government. That’s not to say they cannot be effective at drawing attention to issues, and we’ve seen the PAC do that this past year or so, as did the Culture, Media and Sport Committee with phone hacking. Ultimately therefore the PAC’s strategy has to be to keep on, and on about this until the government is embarrased into doing something about it.

The second problem is far more fundamental and thus more difficult to tackle. This is that at senior, managerial, levels, in central government (and to a lesser but growing extent in local government and public services more generally) public administration and public policy making in Britain has been turned from serving the broader public interest, to serving the interests of corporate Britain, the 1% and those individuals and organisations (such as the big four accountancy firms)whose role in society it is to promote and support the narrow interests of this ‘elite.’

This has been a long process that started for legitimate reasons in the 1960s and began to expand and speed up once Thatcher came to power. New Labour – as we might expect – continued to encourage the corporate takeover of policy making and public adminstration, with the likes of Mandelson et al happy to go along with the myth that the interests of big business almost always and everywhere serve the interests of the general public (or if they don’t then the public interest is almost always secondary – though often rhetoric would suggest the reverse).

But the developments under Blair and Brown are dwarfed by what we’ve seen happen under the ConDem coalition. Any remaining vestiges of an open and plural policy process – that is, one that allows the views and opinions of multiple stakeholders to be taken into account – went out of the window within the first year (and as the membership of HMRC Board illustrates, the same happened with regulatory agencies). Meanwhile, the ethos, values and practices of commercial management continue to drive out the remaining traces of, and belief in, PUBLIC adminstration and management.

And so we come to what you outline here, Richard. Secondees from commercial organisations who are so confident that their ilk now control government, and that the few remaining civil servants who still see themselves as public servants are so cowed and intimidated that they dare not speak up (e.g. Department for Education, Home Office, HMRC, etc), that they no longer even feel the need to pretend to be working FOR government and the public interest.

And they are right to feel so, of course, because for the first time since the 19th century we have a government that believes absolutely that government by the market – and thus policy making and public adminstration that is driven by those interests and steered by representatives of this ‘class’ – is what representative democracy is all about. It is, as has been noted here before on many occasions, a form of 21st century feudalism. That is what the PAC, you and your blog and others must now fight.

I agree with that. It is democracy that is at stake. And it's time all politicians realised. Too few do.