A century ago, we rarely heard about large amounts of money wasted by government mismanagement. Today, we find news articles every week that mention how hundreds of million dollars are being squandered in the public sector or paid as a cost overrun.
People often think you need drama to precipitate significant change. They don’t realise that just tweaking things can have a massive impact; making micro changes can lead to significant improvements. The Japanese call this Kaizen, and it has long been a part of business management. He doesn’t use the term but, this is exactly what Saqib Qureshi advocates in his new book The Broken Contract: Making Our Democracies Efficient, Representative, and Accountable.
He articulates convincingly that government waste is closely tied to lack of accountability. While there may be some intra-governmental accountability, this is fundamentally meaningless because the government isn’t accountable in a substantial sense to any citizen body.
Government takes money from all citizens: the poor, the rich, the young and the old, and at multiple points. Therefore, governments have greater responsibility and moral duty than the private sector to make sure that money is used properly and effectively. However, that fiscal responsibility is not emphasized enough, nor is it taken seriously enough. I suggest anyone looking to find new solutions to problems of governance to read this book.
The bureaucrats running government policies are not accountable to citizens. Indeed, no government department in Western liberal democracies is directly accountable to its citizens. This again means that, although the public pays taxes, bureaucrats are insufficiently motivated to deliver value for money. Who is checking up on them on behalf of the citizen body, as boards of director do for shareholders of companies.
Dr Qureshi argues that one significant micro-change worth implementing is requiring government departments to go through an annual review of civil servants. The bottom worst performing two percent of their staff should be let go. Conversely, the top five percent who go above and beyond should be rewarded. Tracking employees over time and having quarterly performance reviews can only achieve this. These techniques have long been used in the private sector, where employees generally must deal with a five percent annual turnover rate. Yet, few public sector institutions take this approach.
"It’s another sign that the European Union needs to undergo deep reforms and move to the next level; – a level where the EU would be able to face all of its challenges as a single body, effectively and efficiently, not as bureaucratic administration moving at a snail’s pace"
This will light a fire in the public sector, a fire that the private-sector culture has long used to light their way to better results. Comparisons can be used and applied more positively. In fact, there is no good reason why we can’t benchmark and compare the public and private sectors more often, and in doing so improve the accountability and representation of government, as well as reduce its waste.
Government, at least in some respects, can be measured against the private sector and should be, since we’re obliged to pay for government services through taxes, held to a higher standard than private-sector businesses.
Surely, unions and specifically public-sector unions are an essential part of our economic eco-system, but reforms are needed in the interest of saving democracy from its worst tendencies.
The book draws on examples from around the world, from waste in the US Defence Department to contemporary British politics, in suggesting a way forward.
It’s another sign that the European Union needs to undergo deep reforms and move to the next level; where the EU would be able to face all of its challenges as a single body, effectively and efficiently, not as bureaucratic administration moving at a snail’s pace.
About the author
Muddassar Ahmed is a former advisor to the British government, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund and patron of the Faiths Forum for London.