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How Not to Do It
Nothing works in the omnicompetent state.
Last week, the British government announcedbecause the opposition in Parliament forced it to announcethat 70 prisoners, including three murderers and an unspecified number of burglars, drug dealers, and holders of false passports, had escaped from a single minimum-security prison this year alone. Twenty-eight of them were still at large.
That so many of them absconded suggested that they were not quite the reformed characters that justified lower levels of security in the first place; but as usual in Britain, temporary embarrassment soon subsides into deep amnesia. The fact is that the whole episode is precisely what we have come to expect of our public administration and was nothing out of the ordinary.
In the same week, my former colleagues, senior doctors in the hospital that I worked in until my recent retirement, received a leaflet with their monthly pay stubs. It offered them, along with all other employees, literacy training: a little late in their careers as doctors, one might have thought.
The senior doctors could take up to 30 hours of free courses to improve their literacy and numeracy skills, all in working time, of course. In these courses, they could learn to spell at least some words, to punctuate, to add and do fractions, and to read a graph.
Do you have a SPIKEY [sic] profile? asked the leaflet, and went on to explain: A spikey profile is when a person is good at literacy but not at mathematics or visa [sic] versa. The reader could address himself to one of no fewer than four members of the hospital staff who were contact persons for the courses, among them the Vocational Training Coordinator and the Non-Vocational Training Coordinator. In case none was available to answer the telephone or reply to e-mails, the reader could contact one of three central government agencies that deal with the problem of illiterate and innumerate employees.
Here, truly, was a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum; but there is more to the ignorance and incompetence pervading the leaflet than meets the eye. Such ignorance and incompetence are now so systematic and widespread in the British public service that if they are not the result of deliberate policy, they might as well be. In fact, there is now a profoundly catalytic relationship between the intellectual, moral, and economic corruption of the British public service and the degeneration of the national character. Which among all the various factors came first and is therefore ultimately causative is not easy to say; as usual, I suspect that intellectual error is at the root of most evil. But why such error should have found so ready an acceptance raises the specter of an infinite regress of explanation, which perhaps we can avoid only by invoking a dialectical approach.
Three new books give us an insight into the nature of the corruption that has sprung from the ever-wider extension of self-arrogated government responsibility in Britain, and they shed light as well on the effect that government expansion has upon the population. By the time you have finished reading them, you are unsure as to whether Gogol, Kafka, or Orwell offers the best insight into contemporary British reality. Gogol captures the absurdity all right, and Kafka the anxiety caused by an awareness of sinister but unidentifiable forces behind what is happening; but you also need Orwell to appreciate, and sometimes even to admire, the brazenness with which officialdom twists language to mean the opposite of what it would once ordinarily have meant.
Two of the books are by men who work in the front line of the public service, one in law enforcement and the other in education. Like me, they write pseudonymously. By describing their day-to-day routine, Police Constable David Copperfield and teacher Frank Chalk show how the British state now works, or rather operates, with devastating effect on the British character.
Copperfield, whose website is so annoying to politicians in power that they feel obliged to denigrate it in Parliament, and whose book is titled Wasting Police Time, is an ordinary constable in an ordinary British town. As he makes clear in his book, very little of his time at work is spent in activity that could deter crime, discover those who commit it, or bring them to justice. His induction into the culture of politically correct bureaucratic incompetence was immediate on joining up: he had naively supposed that the main purpose of his job was the protection of the public by the suppression of malefaction, instead of which he discovered that it was to set about changing the racist, homophobic and male-dominated world in which we lived. The first three days of his training were about prejudice and discriminationin short, diversity training. There never was to be any training in the mere investigation of crimes, a minor and secondary part of modern police work in Britain.
The mandated, politically inspired obsession with racism is on view in the crawlingly embarrassing and condescending speech that the deputy chief constable (deputy police chief) of North Wales, Clive Wolfendale, gave to the inaugural meeting of the North Wales Black Police Association. He decided, Copperfield reports, to speak to the black officers in rap verse, which is about as tactful as addressing Nelson Mandela in pidgin. Here is an extract from Wolfendales speech:
Put away your cameras and your notepads for a spell.
That must have encouraged the black officers no end: if the (white) deputy chief constable, in his maladroit attempt to demonstrate sympathy with them, had called them a bunch of jungle bunnies, he could hardly have made his feelings clearer. His speech reveals what I have long suspected: that antiracism is the new racism.
It is also, and simultaneously, a job opportunity and work-avoidance scheme. Copperfield recounts how, in 1999, a police officer said to a black motorist, who did not answer a question, Okay, so youre deaf as well as black. The report of the official inquiry into the subsequent complaint had 62 pages of attachments, 20 pages of witness statements, and 172 pages of interview transcripts. Legal and disciplinary proceedings took 19 months to complete.
Meanwhile, as the police devote vast energies (and expenditures) to such incidents, crimes such as street robbery and assault continue their inexorable rise and turn much of the country into a no-go area for all but the drunk or the violently inclined.
Copperfield, who joined the police full of idealism, soon notices (as how could he not?) that the completion of bureaucratic procedure is now more important to the police than anything else. All is in order if the forms are filled in correctly. A single arrest takes up to six hours to process, so many and various are the forms. He notices that there are more nonpolice employed in his police station than uniformed officers; and of the latter, the majority are deskbound. The station parking lot is full, 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, but the whole town has only three or four officers to patrol the streetsin cars, of course, not on foot.
The author describes the intellectual and moral corruption that all this bureaucracy brings in its wake. Take, for example, the so-called Administrative Detection, which allows the police and their political masters to mislead the public about the seriousness and efficiency with which the authorities tackle criminality. It works something like this: someone calls the police about a trifling disputeone neighbor accuses the other of threatening behavior, say, and the accused then in turn accuses the accuser. The cops record the two complaints as crimes and take statements from every possible witness. This, of course, can take a very long time, because by the time cops arrive, the witnesses will probably have dispersed. They have to be traced and contacted, andbecause the police are now so touchingly-feelingly sensitive to the wishes of the publicmutually convenient times have to be arranged for the taking of statements.
When finally the police have gathered all the information, they write it up; but of course, no prosecution follows, because by then the complainants have withdrawn their complaint, and in any case the prosecuting authorities would regard the whole business as too trivial to be worth a trial. But the two crimes go into the records as having been solved. And since the politicians in charge judge police performance by the proportion of crimes the force solves, cops do not devote attention to most real crimes, in which detection is difficult and very uncertain of success.
The uselessness of a police force that once excited the admiration of the world is now taken for granted by every Briton who calls the police only to obtain a crime number for insurance purposes, not in the expectation or even hope of any effort at detection. This is not because the individual policeman is lazy, ill-intentioned, corrupt, or stupid, though in the present system he might just as well be: for the system in which he works imposes upon him all the effects (or defects) of precisely those qualities. P.C. Copperfield is clearly a man who wants to do a good job, like most of the policemen I have met, but the system actively and deliberately prevents him from doing so.
I happened, while waiting to interview a man in prison, to be reading Copperfields book, and two plainclothes policemen in the waiting room saw it. They had read the work, and I asked them whether what Copperfield wrote was true. Every word, they replied.
Frank Chalks book, Its Your Time Youre Wasting, tells essentially the same story, this time with regard to education. It surely requires some explanation that, in a country that expends $5,200 a year for 11 years on each childs education, a fifth of children leave school virtually unable to read or write, let alone do simple arithmetic. It takes considerable organization to achieve so little, especially when the means by which practically all children can be taught to read to a high standard are perfectly well-known. A small local educational authority in Scotland, for example, West Dumbarton, has virtually eliminated illiteracy in children, despite the fact that its population is among the poorest in Scotland, by using simple teaching methods and at an additional cost of precisely $25 per pupil.
The intellectual corruption of the English education system is near complete (the Scottish system is rather better). For example, there is a government inspectorate of schools, charged with the maintenance of standards. However, it gives each school it visits several weeks warning of an impending inspection, ample time for even the dullest-witted school administrators to construct a Potemkin village. And then it criticizes all the wrong things: the inspectors criticized Frank Chalk, for example, for having imposed discipline upon his class and thereby having impeded the spontaneity and creativity of the childrenwhich, in the circumstances of the slum school in which he teaches, they principally express in vandalism. The school inspectorate therefore appears to believe in the truth of the anarchist Bakunins dictumthat the destructive urge is also creative.
As an epigraph to his book, Chalk quotes the British deputy prime minister, John Prescott. In that great mans immortal words, which tell you everything about the caliber of the British government that you really need to know, If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there. And that would never do.
In the looking-glass world of modern British public administration, nothing succeeds like failure, because failure provides work for yet more functionaries and confers an ever more providential role upon the government. A child who does not learn to read properly often behaves badly in school and thus becomes the subject (or is it object?) of inquiries by educational psychologists and social workers. As Chalk describes, they always find that the child in question lacks self-esteem and therefore should be allowed to attend only those classes that he feels he can cope with. The so-called Senior Management Team in the schoolteachers who have retired into a largely administrative roledeals with all disciplinary problems by means of appeasement, for lack of any other permissible method available to them.
A perverse ideology reigns, in which truth and probity play no part. When marking the childrens work, Chalk is expected to make only favorable comments, designed to boost egos rather than to improve performance. Public examinations are no longer intended to test educational attainment against an invariant standard but to provide the government with statistics that provide evidence of ever-better results. In pursuit of such excellence, not only do examinations require ever less of the children, but so-called course work, which may actually be done by the childrens parents or even by the teachers themselves, plays an important part in the marks the children receiveand it is marked by the very teachers whose performance is judged by the marks that their pupils achieve. The result, of course, is a swamp of corruption, to wade through which teachers become utterly cynical, time-serving, and without self-respect.
A perfect emblem of the Gogolian, Kafkaesque, and Orwellian nature of the British public administration is the term social inclusion as applied in the educational field. Schools may no longer exclude disruptive childrenthat would be the very opposite of social inclusionso a handful of such children may render quite pointless hundreds or even thousands of hours of schooling for scores or even hundreds of their peers who, as a result, are less likely to succeed in life. Teachers such as Chalk are forced to teach mixed-ability classes, which can include the mentally handicapped (their special schools having been closed in the name of social inclusion). The most intelligent children in the class fidget with boredom while the teacher persistently struggles to instill understanding in the minds of the least intelligent children of what the intelligent pupils long ago grasped. The intelligent are not taught what they could learn, while the unintelligent are taught what they cannot learn. The result is chaos, resentment, disaffection, and despair all round.
Britain now has more educational bureaucrats than teachers, as well as more health-service administrators than hospital beds. No self-evident or entirely predictable failure, no catastrophe they have brought about at the behest of their political masters, ever affects their careers, in part because they move from post to post so quickly that none of them ever gets held responsible for anything. The public hospital in which my wife worked as a doctor before her recent retirement built a $28 million extension, but what had been imperatively necessary for the health of the towns population six years ago became equally superfluous four years later and had to be closed down with great urgency, though with the public assurances of the bureaucrats then in charge that they were passionately committed to the townspeoples welfare. No one, of course, was ever held responsible for this expensive fiasco, which fully partook of the absurdity Gogol portrays, the menace Kafka evokes (employees were, on the whole, too frightened for their careers to speak out), and the mendacity Orwell dramatizes.
Insight into why expensive failure is so vitally necessary to the British governmentor indeed, to any government once it arrogates responsibility for almost everything, from the national diet to the way people thinkglimmers out from management consultant David Craigs recent book, Plundering the Public Sector. Craig catalogs what at first sight seems the almost incredible incompetence of the British government in its efforts to modernize the public administration. For example, not a single large-scale information technology project instituted by the government has worked. The National Health Service has spent $60 billion on a unified information technology system, no part of which actually functions. Projects routinely get canceled after $400 $500 million has been spent on them. Modernization in Britains public sector means delay and inefficiency procured at colossal expense.
How is this to be explained? I learned a very good lesson when, 20 years ago, I worked in Tanzania. This well-endowed and beautiful country was broken-down and economically destitute to a shocking degree. A shard of mirror was a treasured possession; a days wages bought a man one egg on the open market. It was quicker to go to Europe than to telephone it. Nothing, not even the most basic commodity such as soap or salt, was available to most of the population.
At first I considered that the president, Julius Nyerere, who was so revered in progressive circles as being halfway between Jesus Christ and Mao Tse Tung, was a total incompetent. How could he reconcile the state of the country with his rhetoric of economic development and prosperity for everyone? Had he no eyes to see, no ears to hear?
But then the thought dawned on me, admittedly with embarrassing slowness, that a man who had been in power virtually unopposed for nearly a quarter of a century could not be called incompetent, once one abandons the preposterous premise that he was trying to achieve what he said he was trying to achieve. As a means of remaining in power, what method could be better than to have an all-powerful single political party distribute economic favors in conditions of general shortage? That explained how, and why, in a country of the involuntarily slender, the party officials were fat. This was not incompetence; it was competence of a very high order. Unfortunately, it was very bad for the population as a whole.
The scheme in Britain is, of course, rather different. (It is not necessary to believe that such schemes have been consciously elaborated, incidentally; rather, they are inherent in the statism that comes naturally to so many politicians because of their self-importance.) The hoops that bind the government to the consultants who advise it in its perennially failing schemes of modernization are those of gold. As Craig demonstrates (though without understanding all the implications), the consultants need failure in Britain to perpetuate the contracts that allow them to charge so outrageously and virtually ad libitum (Craig suggests that $140 billion has disappeared so far, with no end in sight); and, in turn, the government benefits from having this rich but utterly dependent clientele.
The beauty of the system is that dependence on expensive failure reaches quite low levels of the administration: for example, all those civilians (as nonpolice workers for the police are called) in P.C. Copperfields police station, as well as the educational psychologists whom Frank Chalk derides. The state has become a vast and intricate system of patronage, whose influence very few can entirely escape. It is essentially corporatist: the central government, avid for power, sets itself up as an authority on everything and claims to be omnicompetent both morally and in practice; and by means of taxation, licensing, regulation, and bureaucracy, it destroys the independence of all organizations that intervene between it and the individual citizen. If it can draw enough citizens into dependence on it, the central government can remain in power, if not forever, then for a very long time, at least until a crisis or cataclysm forces change.
At the very end of the chain of patronage in the British state is the underclass, who (to change the metaphor slightly) form the scavengers or bottom-feeders of the whole corporatist ecosystem. Impoverished and degraded as they might be, they are nonetheless essential to the whole system, for their existence provides an ideological proof of the necessity of providential government in the first place, as well as justifying many employment opportunities in themselves. Both Copperfield and Chalk describe with great eloquence precisely what I have seen myself in this most wretched stratum of society: large numbers of people corrupted to the very fiber of their being by having been deprived of responsibility, purpose, and self-respect, void of hope and fear alike, living in as near to purgatory as anywhere in modern society can come.
Of course, the corporatist system, at least in its British incarnation, is a house of cards, or perhaps a better analogy would be with a pyramid scheme. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed to perform tasks that are not merely useless but actually obstructive of real work and economically counterproductive. The bureaucracy insinuates itself into the smallest cracks of daily life. Renting out a house recently, I learned from a real-estate agent that the government sends inspectors, in the guise of prospective tenants, to check that the upholstery on chairs is fire-retardant. The inspectors have no other function. The regulations shift like one of those speeded-up meteorological maps on television, creating the need for yet more inspections and inspectors. Recent new regulations for landlords exceed 1,000 pages of close print; in the meantime, Britain does not remain short of decaying housing stock, while rents are among the highest in the world.
The government has to pay for all this activity, supposedly carried out on behalf of the population, somehow. It is simultaneously committed to huge public expenditure and apparent, though not real, control of the public debt. It reconciles the irreconcilable by not including the extravagantly generous pension obligations of the public service in its debt calculationspension obligations that, properly accounted for, now amount to nearly 56 percent of GDP. Also not included is the governments increasing resort to private finance of government institutions, which involves huge future expenditure obligations without the capital costs having to appear in the national accounts.
In other words, the government has turned the cynical last words of an eighteenth-century absolute monarch, Louis XV, into the guiding principle of its policy: après nous, le déluge.