Democracy is good for us (or 25 great public policy failures) - RSA

Democracy is good for us (or 25 great public policy failures)

Blog 7 Comments

  • Economic democracy
  • Public services

In political times oscillating between leave it to the experts and post-truth, too often the people are assigned little more than a cameo role. And in times when deliberate falsehoods can take such hold, it can be easy to bemoan the efficacy of democracy. But before we reach for the cynical view, it is worth considering that perhaps democracy is not the problem - it's a tool after all. The problem is that we've been doing it wrong.

This debate maps quite neatly the contours of an ongoing discussion with a friend who is more Burkean in outlook than I. Democracy is there to elect talented people to do great things on our behalf. My take is rather more republican in outlook. Many pints have been consumed in the agitation of this dialectic. For the past couple of years my republicanism has been ever more defensive.

My best argument is that it's just not convincing that representative democracy, when left to its own devices, is coming up with the best outcomes.

Yesterday, another incomplete and likely unfair attempt - as some individuals face catastrophic risks while - to fund social care was announced. Credit to the Conservatives but it's the wrong package - without an insurance component individuals can face catastrophic risk. And so the social care challenge will go unresolved for a few more years. And this is just one high challenge public policy area that will remain unaddressed. 

Thinking beyond social policy, I quickly dashed off a list of other major public policy failures and reached quite a number in a very short space of time.  These are not failures of ideology, they are failures of efficacy – policy has not achieved the desired outcome or even close to it. In some cases things are getting better but at a grinding pace. Perhaps you can add to the list? 

1. Social care - no fair and sufficient funding mechanism has been implemented.

2. The constitution - power and resources are asymmetrically distributed; democratic choice is constrained. 

3. The welfare state - a system that leads people to hunger is not a functioning system in a developed nation.

4. Productivity - the UK has persistent low productivity growth which creates balance of trade issues and feeds into low wage growth.

5. Adult education - the ability to access high quality education and training opportunities is poor.

6. Mental health - access to timely, intensive support and care is weak.

7. The NHS - a financial crisis is snowballing; at the same time the degree of choice and agency patients have is poor.

8. International trade - the UK has failed to find a stable relationship with its largest trading partners.

9. Prisons - reoffending rates are high; safety in prisons is a growing concern.

10. Housing - where to begin?

11. Environment - our progress in reducing carbon emissions has been too slow (although carbon emissions have declined by a third since 1990).

12. Energy - we lag behind many other European nations in creating a secure, renewable energy system.

13. Northern infrastructure - the failure to invest in a decent rail system in the north of England (and Midlands) is abysmal.

14. Taxation - we are taxed too little to pay for the services we expect. 

15. The gender pay gap - formal equality has not yet led to de facto equality – clocking up towards fifty years of the Equal Pay Act.

16. Railways - overcrowded, over-priced, under-invested.

17. Parental support - we have cut funding for direct support in the early years, now relying on the goodwill of struggling charities.

18. Schools - PISA scores have not improved in two decades.

19. Corporate taxation - we have reduced corporation tax without replacing it with a fair jurisdiction based tax on activity undermining fiscal stability and services.

20. Public health - we are eating ourselves to pain and death.

21. Technical education -let alone parity of esteem, we have failed to build a widely accessible, high quality technical component of our education system. UTCs are the latest failure.

22. London airport - we should have either built it or decided not to build it long ago.

23. Air pollution - we are slowly poisoning ourselves through the air we breathe.

24. Inter-generational fairness - despite yesterday's announcement on social care (which hits working age people anyhow), the assets of working against the retired population is still out of kilter.

25. Immigration - for a quarter of a century we have been managing a system of migration which has little public legitimacy. 

Now, it is easy to run away with the narrative of failure. Policy choices are constrained, contested and complex. And there have been notable policy successes also such as reducing pensioner poverty, crime, smoking, teenage pregnancy, and increasing the employment rate. The point is more that the failures are significant enough for us to doubt not just the policies of a particular administration but to question the form of democracy we have been deploying.

Having spent a day with a group of Manchester citizens last weekend there has to be another way. These were the Manchester members of the Citizens' Economic Council. Two things became apparent. Firstly, the impact that being involved in a democratic deliberation has had on a number of members. They hadn’t necessarily changed their political views (though they often had in subtle ways). But some of the participants explained how being involved in challenging material related to the economy had increased their sense self-confidence and agency to engage in policy issues. One also told me that she had begun making very different life decisions, eg around savings, as a result of her involvement and was now trying to engage work colleagues in wider policy discussion.

There was a very interesting process of policy engagement and development also. Participants found policy development hard – as the list above might prove. In the beginning, they found it difficult to even frame the problem. Then policy ideas were in short supply. Over time, the ideas started to flow but they were unrealistic, absent of trade-offs and parameters. They then started to challenge themselves with the trade-offs and parameters and the policies were refined. They quickly moved on from tax this and spend that to the actually mechanisms and phasing, e.g. to improve investment in local care, ending up with some practical ideas.

And here is the gap in the way we currently do politics and policy. Even if policy successes were far easier to list than the failures, there would be virtue in involving people more for the good it does them as individuals, the cultivation of new civic relationships, and reinforcing the ability of all citizens to distinguish between the credible (though contested) and the fake or dishonest.

Yet, the failures are far more plentiful than the successes. And so frankly, what do we have to lose? The case for a republican politics grounded in citizenship and involvement becomes ever stronger.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • This is virtually a party political apologia for a Republican CORBYNISTA Labour manifesto. It is surprising that such a politically-biased piece has been permitted during election purdah. Please explain.

  • And so many of these issues are interrelated, and require action at city region level.

  • I'm not that bothered about the republican bit, other than the signal a hereditary monarchy with considerable privileges displays. I'm far more concerned about a dysfunctional democracy, which fails to reflect the balance of political opinion or people's real concerns. When lying and wholesale misrepresentation become common political currency and where the media either go along with it or fail to challenge it adequately, it's scarcely surprising that we fail to address many significant policy areas and/or get them so badly wrong.

    I fear that there is an amorality at the heart of economic and social power in this country which will make this situation extremely difficult to change. A workable system of PR would be a step in the right direction, but I worry about the large numbers of people whose ideas about the world are so misguided and ill- or mis-informed, that they are so easily manipulated. Social media are rapidly creating bubbles of similar opinions, operating as echo-chambers. So dialogue between differing views is limited and, unfortunately in view of the way many people use social media, offering hostility rather than genuine discussion.

    Far too much is centralised. Though there is a chicken and egg argument, if we don't push greater power over their own lives back to local communities, they will continue to be apathetic and not prepared to take the time to become properly informed. Nor will they engage. In some respect, perhaps the healthiest thing for our democracy might be for a government to push the majority of decisions back to local communities and force them to engage. Similarly, investment in a community-funded local media with a statutory requirement to inform and provide information and opinion in a balanced manner could assist people in making up their minds and taking decisions.

    My other thought would be to take some policy areas away from the purely political arena. Take education. Would it not be worth road-testing the idea of a national or regional education commission(s) consisting of all interested parties, not excluding students or politicians, but including employers, teachers, universities, educational experts) in considering how best to improve the education (and I don't restrict this to academic education, when technical/vocational education is so under-prioritised) of young people to fit them for a world which is very different from that most politicians grew up in and once which is continually changing. Depoliticise it and focus on what is to be achieved, rather than the constant tinkering with both the curriculum, the exam system and the educational structure almost entirely to meet political nostrums and prejudices.

    But to be honest, as someone who protested against the "system" in 1968, 50 years later sometimes I feel that the only answer is to take it apart root and branch and try to build something better.

  • I have proposed that the model of Citizens Economic Council be adopted by Government at the stage that policies are being fleshed out (from a political party origin) under the title Participative Policy Formulation.  It is essential that a diversity of perspectives and insights be brought to bear on deveopling policies rather than it being left to politicians and civil servants.  I guess my view on this supports Anthony's although I hadn't thought to frame it as 'republican' - it is more about participative democracy as a form of civic engagement rather than voting once in four or five years and then being exluded from meaningful involvement (although we can always find other things to do - government isn't everything). 

  • You make some interesting points but, aside from questioning what you mean by 'republican politics', I have just two suggestions for further discussion-

    - please look more closely into the need for each individual to accept personal responsibility for his/her actions. We have developed an environment in which it is all too easy to blame others - and pursue litigation - when things go wrong

    - please consider carefully what role the concept of 'fairness' has in policy determination. To my mind 'fair' is a totally subjective adjective which will never form an effective basis for a political process. It will always be misused by the more vocal segments of society.