Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Little apples and big barrels

According to Owen Jones 'The Met's problem isn't bad apples, it's the whole barrel. Abolish it.' Which kind of sums up why hard political problems are hard and usually don't get fixed, at least for a long time. The easy thing to do is to say that heads must roll, that somebody must find the guilty individuals and remove them. A change of personnel at the top, combined with a limited, exemplary, purge of the junior ranks, would be a relatively quick, easy way to show that Something Has Been Done.

Dismantling a dysfunctional structure and rebuilding it as a better organisation with more effective oversight, fewer perverse incentives and fewer opportunities to be corrupt, or to cover up serious wrongdoing, in the face of inertia and vested interests is hard and slow, which is why it's seldom done.

Take the Bank of England. A new broom was appointed to sweep away the old order, amid lots of hope, hype and hyperventilation, but the underlying mess he inherited keeps on bubbling to the surface and there's little evidence that the new boss has spotted the elephant in the room (not to mention the 100 metre tall fire-breathing, radioactive lizard). The shiny new apple atop the Old Barrel of Threadneedle Street is living proof of a good crisis wasted.

Fundamental change - of embedded ideologies and power structures, rather than of mere personnel (however senior) - is hard work and when I look at the scale of some of society's most intractable problems, I've some sympathy for politicians, overwhelmed by the scale of the task, who decide that a quick fix is better than starting a long, hard, thankless task that won't pay dividends this side of an election.

I'm less sympathetic towards politicians who have completely given up, or are quite happy with the failing status quo, thank you very much, and seem to be trying to stoke voters' grievances and exaggerate the importance of comparatively minor, manageable issues in what looks like a deliberate attempt to distract them from the big, important things that are going on.