Why big government is bad government

July 10, 2009

jill-kirby-Jill Kirby is author of “The Reality Gap” and director of the Centre for Policy Studies. The opinions expressed are her own. –

In the midst of an economic crisis, we have a crisis of trust in politicians. But it is not through their lack of activity. Over the last ten years, layers of government have multiplied, more regulatory bodies have been put in place, thousands of new laws have been passed and greater powers of surveillance have been accorded to the State.

Yet as government activism has increased, so public confidence has fallen. High levels of regulation co-exist with extreme regulatory failure. From the banking crisis to Baby P, Labour had introduced elaborate new systems of governance which, far from preventing disaster, appears to have contributed.

How has government become so big and yet so ineffective? Five techniques have been used to disguise failure as success. First, moving goalposts – changing the criteria for measurement. In the dilution of education standards, in the selective us of targets and statistics, in the manipulation of public finances and Gordon Brown’s flexible use of the so-called Golden Rules, the Government has relied on bending the rules of the game in order to claim success.

The reality gap widens; public disbelief and disillusionment set in. The media begin to challenge the Government’s version of events. And ministers cast around for new ways ] to convince us that life has got better – like putting targets into law. This is technique number two.

Having failed to meet all its (redefined) intermediate targets to abolish child poverty, the government is now legislating for its abolition. No-one seriously believes that this – or the targets in last year’s Climate Change Act – can be met, but opposition politicians are unwilling to challenge them.

The third technique is to treat governing as a public relations exercise. Every department publishes a stream of glossy brochures in the guise of departmental reports, consultation papers and “business plans.” The Treasury’s Budget Report used to appear in plain covers.

Now it’s called “Building Britain’s future.” The Home Office alone has ten documents listed on its website as “Corporate Publications.” We are not told how much all these brochures cost the taxpayer – but the figure would dwarf the 400 million pounds officially spent last year on government advertising.

Technique number four is the collection of vast quantities of data. Another form of virtual activity by government and its agencies, it places a huge burden on social workers, school and NHS staff, the police and probation service. The fact that data has been collected does not mean it is used effectively; it simply creates the appearance of compliance. It also crowds out human contact and common sense.

The fifth and final technique, overlaying all the rest, is complexity – of systems and language. From the elaborate structure of our tax and benefits system to the maze of procedure in children’s services, with its “multi-agency partnerships” and “consensual decision-making.” With benchmarks and beacons, learning pathways and person-centred planning, most government documents require translation into plain English before their significance can be assessed.

This Government has proved that more means worse. The only answer is a serious reduction in State activism: cutting the size of government and its departments, abolishing targets, freeing up public services and charities, axing databases. If a new government can disavow the five techniques outlined here (and learn to live without them) the age of spin will truly be over. But learning to let go will not be easy.


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The last para is the telling one – how do you separate the children from the sweeties? They’ve become unhealthy and obese, and blaming the healthy ones for it.

Posted by Richard Kaminski | Report as abusive

Well stated, Ms. Kirby. If only the United States would move in the same direction, our troubles with the nonsense that is a top-heavy bureaucracy would quickly alleviate. The obstruction, of course, is the half of the country unwilling to admit that their government needs to be smaller to work better… because entitlement is the only thing they are concerned with.

Posted by Joshua B. | Report as abusive