David Cameron’s Department for Administrative Affairs
Who would have credited the brilliant Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn with such inspirational foresight as the gift of political prophecy?
Of all the draft manifesto semi-commitments yet expounded by the nation’s next prime minister, none is as revolutionary as his ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’, and yesterday we heard more about it.
Command-and-control will disappear: the Hobbesian Leviathian of state centralisation will be slain by the swords of transparency, scrutiny and accountability. Power will be relinquished and devolved from the centre, permitting cooperatives to flourish, shifting the control of public money from the sluggish tiers of bureaucratic government to energised individuals and vibrant communities. The internet will make everyone a participant: the wisdom of the crowd, no longer tolerant of obfuscation, waffle and gibberish, will shine through to impose itself upon government policy. Such ideas have come to be known as post-bureaucratic.
It was George Orwell who observed that ‘political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’. In the same essay, he added that such language was ‘designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’.
Standards have not really changed: indeed, the whole business of government is now seen in those terms. Impenetrable verbiage and incoherent jargon, lies and duplicity have demoralised the people and alienated a nation: they are disillusioned with their politicians and despairing of their politics.
‘Spin’ and intractable bureaucracy have become a totalitarian force in modern political life. The ‘spin’ is the packaging and presenting of information to brainwash; the bureaucracy to frustrate inquiry and obfuscate to the point of exasperation. This arouses suspicion, engenders distrust, and becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of perpetual immobility.
But we are no longer dependent upon the BBC for the ‘state’ news; we are no longer beholden to media barons for a ‘take’ on a story, to publishers for a book selection or to radio stations for a music playlist. An artist can now reach Number 1 in the charts solely through internet downloads; a blogger can have a wider readership than a national daily; a book can be published and sold on demand; and anyone can give us an angle on a news story – especially those the ‘mainstream media’ have chosen to ignore.
The internet now presents us with Sir Humphrey’s nightmare: the data he had at his fingertips and which he withheld from the Minister will now be made available to the masses. They can filter it, crunch it, order it, present it, interpret it and review it, irrespective of ‘spin’ and the official civil-service line to take. It is the epitome of transparency; the pinnacle of accountability; the zenith of democracy.
It will not be easy, not least because it runs counter to the post-democratic zeitgeist, and Sir Humphrey is now no longer merely a pedantic and pompous permanent secretary in Whitehall but a burgeoning bureaucratic beast in Brussels.
The hurdles are considerable.
Let us not forget that Jim Hacker failed in his idealistic quest to improve the relationship between government and citizens; he failed to reduce bureaucracy or to save the taxpayer the millions he promised. And the reason was that ultimately his own re-election and advancement became his only real measure of success. Sir Humphrey knew this, and so forced the Minister for Administrative Affairs to dance to the tune of popular appeal, thereby sustaining the prestige, power, and influence of the complex bureaucracy.
And so the reforms and economies never happened.
But the department remained, because the aspiration was an undeniable vote-winner; the mere existence of the policy sustained the perception of progress.
Let us hope the ‘Post-Bureacratic Age’ does not fall foul of civil service obfuscation and circumlocution, or European Union jargon and manipulation. And let us also hope that it does not have to wade through months of boards and reviews or years of interminable inquiries and interdepartmental committees, lest the ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’ become nothing more than a colossal exercise in bureaucracy.