Changing shape in order to shape change

4th revolution copy

John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge: The Fourth Revolution – The Global Race to Reinvent the State. ISBN 978-1-846-14733-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Changing the shape of government and shaping the change of government – that’s the challenge for any Western public service. Good governance, a solid financial base, lean decision-making structures and satisfied customer-citizens – who wouldn’t like to subscribe to such a model, be it in Europe, Brazil, the United States or Japan? Micklethwait and Wooldridge provide a useful recapitulation of the past: Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Beatrice Webb and Milton Friedman are the names of the thinkers whose ideas contributed to the creation of the modern welfare state.

However, that model is about to break down because of over-extension, as the authors rightly observe. Demographics are at work here. We are getting older and become an expensive liability for the younger generations, far less numerous than our generation. Public service has grown into a seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable monster, pervading and regulating every aspect of our lives with great inefficiency.

The authors describe in a fascinating way the challenges ahead, and relish in enumerating the many failings of present governments in almost all the fields where it should succeed: health, transport, assistance to the weak, affordable housing, security. The list of what went wrong is endless, despite the efforts of many courageous public servants to reverse the trend. However when it comes to sketch possible solutions, the ideas the authors advance are at best naive, at worst misleading. I will just list a few, significant shortcomings in Micklethwait’s and Wooldridge’s arguments.

Efficient governments as in Singapore – the Asian model – come at the price of unacceptable restrictions on human rights and high risk of corruption among the elites-in-charge. I understand the authors fascination by the fast transformation from backward, inert to avant-garde, fast-paced policy-making, but the simple fact that China’s president Xi Jinping has suggested to lift the constitutional provision restricting the number of presidential terms indicates how tempting it is for a self-declared elite of “wise men” – women do not figure anywhere in the part of this book dealing with the future – to extend their power in the name of the people’s will.

This leads me to the next point: the absence of women. They are not part of the equation. More women are better educated, more women want to work, more women want to take over responsibilities in the private sector as much as in the public sector – this totally escapes Micklethwait and Wooldridge despite the fact that it changes any model of social mobility they may use in explaining part of the evolution of the public sector. Women adopt a different management style – different as in relying more on cooperation and creativity in finding solutions – and may well be the key to change the way governmental agencies operate, but the book doesn’t say an iota about it. Boooooh!

Much admired public health systems as they have been put in place in Sweden may be cost-saving, but quick discharges from hospitals are not the only scale to measure their performance since the aspect of the quality of the treatment and the well-being of the patient is neglected. Customer satisfaction does not seem to weigh heavy in the minds of the authors since their emphasis lies on budget efficiency exclusively. The same could be said about the much less admired UK railway systems. After privatization it is still running late, the seats have not become more comfortable, the cost-per-mile-track has remained about the same and the blame-game about what went wrong isn’t even funny anymore.

My personal experience in the public service is that the information age does not automatically lead to a lean and more efficient government. The authors put exaggerated hope into technology. Quite often incompatible IT-solutions are put in place and prioritization of who buys what becomes a drama in multiple acts. In-house software development addressing specific public service issues is hampered by a lack of available IT engineers, willing to leave the private sector, and supervisors prefer to decide small issues since they quite often do not understand the bigger picture – an issue shared with the private sector where thousands of badly trained managers fail when the time has come to assume responsibility. The human factor cannot be emphasized enough and will always neutralize efficiency gains through technology. This is less ironic than it may appear.

Making government agencies more responsive is always a lovely idea. Giving citizen the option to share with government agencies pictures of problems (pot holes, graffiti, missing road signs etc.) along with GPS data through mobile phones sounds like a cheap and democracy-friendly idea but it will lead government to fund additional posts. It will feed the monster, not put it on a diet. Someone will have to process and prioritize the data, generate specific orders for work crews and provide a feedback to senders. And write reports about efficiency gains neutralized.

Finally raising pension age is not a solution per se as burn-outs are a common issue in the higher echelons of public service, partly because leaner structures – smart government is the key word here – have increased the workload for decision makers. Posts have been cut, but the work has remained the same. The resulting costs – increasing hours of sick-leave – do not show up on the authors’ balance sheet. Sure we can work longer. But will we work better at age 70 than at age 65? I have my doubts. The solution will rather lie in a reduction and a better distribution of essential tasks among public servants.

It is a pity that these two respected journalists have not managed to really understand some of the inherent problems of “big government” that make changing its shape and shaping its change so difficult. Their idea – streamline everything and cost-efficiency is our new God – is far too shortsighted as an approach. Micklethwait and Wooldridge should know better. They worked for “The Economist”.

Now, one thing the two authors got right is a fact from the world of music. While musing over labour-intensive services provided by government, Micklethwait and Wooldridge correctly state that it took four players to perform a Beethoven quartet in the 19th century and that today it still takes four players to play a piece like Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 in C minor by which Beethoven provided an early proof of his revolutionary mind:

Radically innovative – now and then