Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Sustainable Steve Wages War on Whitehall

Reading Steve Shaw`s article `Radical Bottom Up Democracy` in The Citizen this month I began to wonder if I`d unknowingly passed through a time-warp.

Steve`s article, commendable in it`s intentions, aimed to promote the Sustainable Communities Act of 2008. In that respect, I have no problem with it whatsoever.

What`s striking is his description of the obstacles he claims the Act has encountered. "Senior Whitehall civil servants" have tried to "block the Act" and are in fact "doing all they can to destroy the democratic core of the Act". "Sir Humphrey" (a reference to a character in a 1980s TV series) "is still at large." 

Reading the relevant passages, I felt as if I was reading a tract from either the Thatcherite right of the `80s or something from some 1970s ultra-left grouping, an impression furthered by the dated TV reference. Don`t be so shrill, Steve, people will stare ! 

I haven`t given up my time just to poke fun at someone who I`m sure is doing good and valuable work, I do have some serious points to make.

Firstly, I have some experience of  civil service work in days gone by, including a short spell in the HQ of a nationally known government agency. That particular job was one I hated, but it did have it`s educational side ! One thing I can state with some certainty is that, whatever may have happened in the past, these days if Civil Servants are deliberately obstructive or drag their heels, frankly it`s because politicians, probably those at a very high level, have either told them to do so or have indicated that they`ll turn a blind eye. 

The other point is that the Sir Humphrey character was a portrayal of a particular type of Whitehall culture which might have existed at one time, but didn`t survive the Thatcher years.  Mrs T, as you may know,  cut the power of  `Whitehall mandarins` by turning large parts of the old Departments into semi-autonomous Agencies run by Chief Executives brought in from the private sector on short term contracts. A number of the newly-formed Agencies were in fact moved out of London, and both the Conservatives and Labour have subsequently preferred the advice of businessmen and political appointees to that of career Civil Servants.

The resultant outcry against the `democratic deficit` thus created was in fact a great boost to Charter 88, one of the `ancestors` of Unlock Democracy, the very organisation Steve represents, so it`s odd if he is unaware of this.

My guess is that Steve has genuine concerns that the Act is being obstructed but is reluctant to antagonise the very politicians he needs to ensure that it is properly implemented. In an odd way I can see how that would be a dilemna, but I have to say one should be wary of half-truths as a vehicle for advancing a cause. By their very nature, Unlock Democracy supporters  tend to be well-informed people with a social conscience who have a rooted objection to the Westminster culture of the three main parties. I`m not sure they`re interested in reliving the battles of the past. 

Having said all this, it`s only right to stress that Unlock Democracy is an excellent organisation, that the Local Works project (a coalition of over 120 organisations ranging from Trade Unions to small business organisations, environmental groups and others  all wishing - quite rightly - to see the Sustainable Communities Act, which came into force in 2008, properly implemented) is extremely worthwhile  and that the hard work and commitment of Steve Shaw and his team is beyond question. I hope anyone reading this will be tempted to visit their sites at http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/ and http://www.localworks.org/ and see what it`s all about.

 Lastly, The Citizen is a good read and obviously provocative or you wouldn`t be reading this article in the first place !

1 comment:

  1. I feel the need to defend Steve here as someone who observed the negotiations that Local Works has had with the DCLG over the last few years from relatively close quarters.

    The civil service HATE the bill, and their objections come straight from the Yes, Minister episode about devolving more power to local government. Negotiations would go on with ministers, week after week, having agreed a position only to have that position unpicked by the civil servants over the following few days. And so it went on. For weeks.

    No-one is saying that civil servants are evil - and indeed Sir Humphrey himself was very often right. But like any other body they have their own blind spots and vested interests. The SCA presses all these buttons, which is why it has been such a struggle.