Robin McAlpine: Twelve-step guide to killing off a good idea

ONE of the questions I am asked most often by people who are interested in politics but who are not closely involved in the work of government is, “why does nothing happen?”.

ONE of the questions I am asked most often by people who are interested in politics but who are not closely involved in the work of government is, “why does nothing happen?”.

For an outsider the process of government often seems like a sort of waste disposal unit into which you put good ideas and out of which emerges sludge.

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But this is the wrong question. “Why” is easy – some vested interest somewhere doesn’t want something to happen and has the lobbying budget to make sure it doesn’t. The more important question is “how does nothing happen?”, the methods and mechanisms used to manufacture sludge out of decent thinking.

Because this isn’t a whodunnit – much as I support MSP Neil Findlay’s proposed bill on a register of lobbyists, naming names alone won’t change much – this is a practical problem with how we do the business of government.

I was a lobbyist for the university sector for more than a decade but increasingly have come to believe that for the sake of democracy we need greater public awareness of how decisions really get made. Set out below is a fairly arbitrary list of the sorts of techniques that prevent change although to understand this you need two quick pieces of context.

First, the majority of lobbying isn’t done by “lobbyists” but by senior managers and policy professionals in the public sector, by commercial managers in big companies and so on. And secondly, very little of this lobbying has anything much to do with politicians; it is largely an internal conversation between senior managers in the public and private sectors and civil servants and the staff of government agencies.

So: 12 steps to the death of a good idea.

• Set up a stakeholder or expert group, as long as all stakeholders are institutional; vested interests pulling in opposite directions encourage inertia.

• Try hard to do as little of your business in the stakeholder group as you can; work on the civil servants managing the group to make the agenda as bland as possible.

• Make the data the problem. Whatever the problem is, demand it be proved numerically. This not only takes a lot of time, as soon as you’ve managed to make it about the numbers you can argue about them indefinitely without doing anything. Evidence-based prevarication.

• Once you can’t make it about the data, make it about the process, never the content. As long as you’re talking about process, nothing substantive happens. Change comes from the content, so content is the enemy.

• Suck air through your teeth with the might of a garage mechanic. “Oh, that’s a risky idea” is the threat of choice if you want to put the fear of God into anyone who might change anything.

• Use the “weasel button”. This is a concept invented by a friend who believed half the civil service could be made redundant if Microsoft Word had a button you could tweak that would turn “must” into “should” into “could” into “might”. The weasel button is powered by the fear of “hostages to fortune”, an expression that bullies people into never trying anything.

• When you see the draft report of the group appear to be reasonable by making agreement a matter of percentages – as in “we agree with 70 per cent of this report”. After all, “I really love pickled gherkins” is 80 per cent the same as “I really hate pickled gherkins”.

• Do this by looking for “recommendations of the inevitable”, any recommendation that uses phrases such as “continue to”, “improve” or “raise awareness” which show the outcome is subjective. Agree with them because they don’t mean anything.

• Look for recommendations with numbers, agree with the recommendation, disagree with the number. Fight for targets and performance indicators that are proxies for something that is already happening. Don’t accept a target you aren’t certain to meet.

• Find policy proposals you can’t live with and invent changelings – alternatives that look the same but don’t work. Say, “we totally agree with the aim, here’s how we think it can best be achieved”.

• If you still have problems, adopt a Long Grass Strategy, anything that will delay things. You can use “bad babysitter”, where you give a key piece of work to an organisation that will water things down or can be undermined if it doesn’t. Or demand “one more year of data to be sure”. Or decide something new has happened that must be resolved before this.

• Finally, no-one must know about any of this. By this stage there will have been an almost complete media blackout. Papers will be marked “in confidence” for no particular reason, “political interference” (an elected politician taking an interest) will be prohibited while “work is ongoing”. By the time we get to public scrutiny, there should be little left to scrutinise.

This is often lazily called “cherry-picking”, the least accurate metaphor in the political lexicon. It would be much closer to the mark to call this “cherry-avoiding”, a process of filling everyone’s baskets with twigs and leaves and bark. Anything but cherries.

The proportion of the population that knows about this process is tiny. Perhaps 95 per cent of it takes place outside the purview of anyone who is elected and almost none of it is visible to an average backbench MSP. And no-one involved will earn anything like the average salary of a Scots worker; this is “professional work” for “professionals”.

Nothing changes because the the whole system is designed to serve the interests of the public and private sector elite, not the population as a whole. In truth, most lobbying isn’t about informing democracy but about finding ways round democracy.

None of this is an argument against listening to the views of people with real expertise or the importance of data and evidence in decision-making. But it is an argument against leaving decision-making exclusively in the hands of vested interests.

We already have an important means of evidence-based public decision-making; we call it the court system. If 15 men and women drawn from the Scottish population can listen to complex evidence and then decide on guilt or innocence, why is public policy beyond them? What is really so scary about open democracy? I have sat on one jury and countless governmental working groups. If you ask me, the “amateurs” seemed every bit as capable as the “professionals”.

• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation