Thursday, October 26, 2006

Fools of Engagement

Some years ago the Government set up stalls in the nation’s supermarkets so that it could reach out and discover what we, the people, really thought about the National Health Service. If only we could have told them but being sued for libel is, apparently, quite unpleasant.

Few things are more disturbing on a Saturday morning when you are straining to remember whether or not Jerusalem artichokes are in season and squinting to read the tiny lists of ingredients in muesli bars than some overgrown boffin in a baggy suit and crooked tortoise-shell spectacles bouncing around you trying to extract ‘your views’.

While struggling to juggle my shopping basket and my senses simultaneously, I found a beefy fist in my face clutching a questionnaire, the title of which was something like What is the purpose of the NHS? The boffin swayed back and forth in a type of strange dance that we in Hackney have come to expect from nervous civil servants who have never been to this dangerous part of the world before. I wonder what they tell them in preparation - that they should expect to be mugged and offer up their BlackBerry to the first person to make eye contact with them perhaps?

‘You don’t have to fill it out now’, he encouraged. Perhaps he thought I might like to take it to my adult literacy class and get help from the tutor.

‘Have you got a pen?’, I enquired.

‘Oh yes!’, boffin enthused, his face morphing into the Churchill’s Insurance dog, ‘you can keep the pen. They’re free!’ Sorry about the use of all these exclamation marks. The boffin himself was a living, breathing exclamation mark. Perhaps he thought I had never seen a pen before. It used to be if you went to Russia or Cuba you’d take pens and soap to give to the poor people because there were shortages of these things. You can’t actually fill out a questionnaire with soap, (although lipstick works quite well), and it may not have been polite to give people in the worst borough in Britain a present of soap.

I took the pen and wrote ‘to fix sick people’ directly underneath the heading ‘What is the purpose of the NHS’, and handed the form back to the boffin who thanked me with profuse disingenuousness.

The Government has an almost mystical talent for making things far more complicated than they need to be. Its rocky romance with ‘community engagement’ lurches towards yet another inevitable cul-de-sac as Ruth ‘Head Girl’ Kelly today announced its umpteenth new direction in its relationship with local Government. She told the BBC this morning,

‘The proposals that we'll set out today will recast the relationship between central and local government, will put in place strong, visible local leadership everywhere so people know who is taking decisions, they are able to take tough decisions, they are able to make long-term strategic decisions about the future of an area.’

All this has come about because of a survey that showed, as similar surveys have done for years now, a declining satisfaction in local authorities. Successive Governments have been fiddling with local authorities and their scope of influence for over twenty years and none more obsessively than this one. Having stripped local authorities of much of their powers, especially over housing and education, in the last few years, the Government now proposes to hand some of these powers back. Unfortunately, most local authorities have been forced to hand over a lot of their housing to criminally inept housing associations and neither the local authorities or the Government seem to be able to exercise any control over them.

Every year local authorities have to undertake a Comprehensive Performance Assessment. This is a massive competitive exercise which preoccupies every council in England for eleven months of the year, leaving them little time for delivering public services. Head Girl seems to have forgotten that it was her Government that instigated this ridiculously onerous system only a couple of years ago as she promised to,

"…slash central government targets. A situation where in some areas you have up to 1,200 different Government performance indicators and targets and so forth will go down to a system that has a bare minimum.’

The thing that Government is most worried about is the total lack of interest that most of us now have in the silly game that politics has become. Only one in five of us are satisfied with the opportunities to participate in local decision-making, according to this survey. As usual, the Government has put two and two together and come up with E=mc2. The survey also found, as these surveys typically do, a link between direct involvement in decision-making and satisfaction levels with the council. Of the people who sit on council committees 68 per cent have a reasonable level of satisfaction with council services compared to only 26 per cent of the rest of us who have to clean up our footpaths after the garbage truck has been.

Here’s the thing. People who sit on council committees are bestowed self-importance by the officers they work with and become sympathetically conditioned. They are also unlikely to diss decisions they have helped to make, no matter how daft. It’s not as if the minute you get elected onto a local committee the streets start to look cleaner to you, unless of course it coincides with your cataract operation. It is crude and cynical to want to raise levels of public involvement just so that people will report higher levels of satisfaction with services that remain doggedly awful.

I have just one question for the Government. Why do people in the poorest areas with the lowest quality services still pay the highest council tax after you’ve been in power for nearly ten years?

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