Saturday, April 25, 2009

Buildings and their Inhabitants

As the current economic crisis worsens the public will start to demand change. The traditional way of dealing with a failure among the elites is to replace the personnel and leave the institutional structure in which the elites operate intact. So, after Watergate the President and certain of his key advisors were removed (some of them went to jail) and in the 1976 election the American people elected a new president who promised to reform Washington. Similarly after the Bush presidency collapsed a candidate promising change was elected.

After Watergate continuity in the structure of the institutions ensured that the same sorts of people were left free to manage things in much the same sort of way. Time will tell whether Obama is able to achieve more in the White House than Carter.

In Britain, equally, it looks as though the electorate will punish the current administration and put into power a new set of managers, probably from the Conservative party.

The people are removed, but the buildings themselves remain untouched. A kind of neutron bomb model of reform.

The correct approach would be to concentrate on changes to the structure and to worry less about the personnel within it. The heads of the major political parties and the teams of communications managers they rely on are somewhat similar to one another. They tend to be quick-witted, ambitious, and capable of combining that ambition with disciplined obedience to the party line, or to the line of the faction they belong to. In this they are not so terribly different from the most effective operators in the NGOs, in the unions, in journalism, and so on. The world will always be run by people of this stripe. Many of them will adapt themselves to a new dispensation and very quickly elbow aside those who have less energy and less determination to be at the centre of things, wherever the centre happens to be.

If we settle for a change of personnel, then they will leave the system itself unchanged. It is one they understand, after all, one that have prepared themselves to run. Their knowledge of its workings gives them an important advantage over the rest of us.

But a change of personnel is not enough. One only has to consider the Conservative party's attitude towards the City over the last three decades to see that they did not see the crisis coming, and have no plan as to how it might be addressed. George Osborne's response to the budget insisted on the need to 'cut wasteful spending and debt', as though waste in the public sector was responsible for the recession that is now beginning to bite. In his concluding remarks he was heavy on the need for change:

"David Cameron and the Conservatives would like to prove to you that change is possible [...] Only you can hold your government accountable and bring about the change this country so desperately needs. When the time comes if you give us the chance we will show you that we can change this country for the better, that we can put Britain on the right track."

Clearly the Conservatives have been studying Obama's campaign rhetoric. But the vacuity of the response is unmistakeable.

The elites have failed catastrophically and they will continue to do so if they are allowed to remain in the comfortable familiarity of the system through which they have gained advancement. The system, rather than any ineptitude in managing it, has brought us to our current predicament and the system has to change.

The elites know that they can only stay at the centre if they are carefully responsive to the public's demands, albeit while professing to show principled leadership. We have to remodel the infrastructure of public life now, while we have a chance to do so.

It is time to think big. The inhabitants of the governing institutions matter less than the structure of information and law in which they operate.

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