Technocrats and Bureaucrats
Posted by Pete Hague on 13 Sep 2012
The recent reshuffle of David Cameron's cabinet has prompted some discussion of whether or not his new appointees are qualified for their jobs. Much was rightly made of how we now have a Secretary of state for Health who believes in the efficacy of homoeopathy (spoiler alert: it doesn't work at all) and a Minister for Equality who doesn't believe gay people should be allowed to adopt children.
The position that most interests me though, was not subject to a reshuffle. Ed Davey remains the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change. He is a Liberal Democrat who took over the job in February when the previous incumbent Chris Huhne had to resign over his criminal attempts to avoid a speeding fine. The fact that this position wasn't subject to a reshuffle that hit many major areas of government, and it has been held by two Lib Dems, suggests to me that Cameron doesn't consider it an important job - and this is worrying. It may even be an indication he believes the right-wing think tanks and doesn't believe climate change is a threat - which if true would be terrifying.
As I have argued before, our requirements for energy and the diminishing returns on both our exploitation of natural resources and our utilisation of them poses a serious problem for our economic system, and this problem will be severely exacerbated by the consequences of climate change. Any responsible government should take the appointment of someone charged with tackling these issues very seriously.
The Obama administration has appointed, to the corresponding position of Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. Chu is a Nobel-prize winning physics professor who has experience organising research into energy and climate change. Ed Davey, on the other hand, is an Oxford PPE graduate like many of his colleagues in parliament. Unless PPE suddenly stands for "Physics, Physics and Engineering", I would argue that Mr Davey is not especially qualified for this job.
With my mere masters degree in physics, I have more academic qualification for the job than the man selected to direct national policy on this issue. Whilst I admit there is more to being a cabinet minister than subject knowledge - there must surely be someone who has both expert knowledge and the ability to oversee a government department.
In the UK, cabinet ministers must be selected from either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Any person to be selected for a ministry must be either elected to a constituency, or made a lord and allowed to sit in an already bloated second chamber. This clearly impacts on the selection; for example, Evan Harris has a background in medicine, and would've been a far better choice to run the NHS than a magic water advocate like Jeremy Hunt, but he lost his seat at the 2010 election. The pool of possible cabinet ministers available to the government is subject to the whims of the electorate in specific constituencies.
The fact that the US system of government gives the administration far more choice in who to appoint is only part of the issue here. There is a distrust in UK politics of 'technocrats' - those who rule because of their expertise in a specific area, not because of the political acumen. This is why the PPE (actually stands for Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) degree is so ubiquitous on both sides of the House of Commons. A PPE degree is essentially training to be an MP.
I find such a convention worrying. A very large number of MPs, and an even larger number of cabinet ministers , are drawn from a single academic background. It is a shockingly elitist system, that to me is reminiscent of bureaucratic exams in Imperial China. The pithy debating skills taught in PPE, on full display every Wednesday as two Oxford PPE graduates go head-to-head in Prime Ministers Questions, are as relevant to the business of actually governing as calligraphy is.
PPE courses (especially at Oxford) and Westminister form a tightly enclosed system of elitism. These courses teach a specific mode of thought, and then people who have been through this system and reached the corridors of power then promote and favour people who have exhibited the same mode of thought.
The argument has been made to me that being an MP requires a specific skill set that is taught in PPE, and that it does not require detailed subject knowledge. To me, this brings back unpleasant memories of the mentally disengaged George W. Bush proclaiming himself 'The Decider'. If you view this embrace of ignorance with contempt, you understand how I feel about PPE culture in Parliament.
Whilst we are stuck with a slightly more open and formalised version of the Masonic handshake as a means of assigning government posts, a more meritocratic government across the pond is picking an expert in the appropriate field as the man to tackle the immense challenges of energy supply and climate change.
For the UK to tackle this problem, I think we need to tackle the stagnant and complacent political culture that we have permitted so far. I would like governments to be able to pick cabinet appointments from anywhere they like, and merely have to have them approved by Parliament. I am told by people who understand more political theory than me that in order for this to work there would need to be a fairly radical overhaul of our political institutions - but I don't view that as a bad thing at all.
Posted by Rob Hague on 14 Sep 2012
Not to attack Steven Chu, but how does a Nobel prize in Physics suggest you know anything about international subsidy negotiations, or energy security, or running a deregulated domestic energy provider market, or setting feed-in tariffs? The job of an Energy minister is not to design reactors (not that a physicist would be particularly good at that either - you'd want an engineer), but to set policy. The key skill is being able to recruit experts in various domains - mining and regulation, as well as climate change - then listening to them and being able to understand what they're telling you (this is perhaps where GW came up short).
In my opinion, the larger problem is the uniformity of background in the Commons, especially the front benches (on both sides). I don't mean the disproportionate number that went to private or public school (this is a different, and complex, issue), but rather the increasing tendency for MPs to have entered politics as special advisers or wonks straight out of University. As a result, there is a lack of experience of the world beyond Westminster.
Fortunately, the solution is that same - recruit Ministers from outside Parliament, allowing you to access a far wider range of qualification and experience. Note that this wouldn't remove political factors from the decision, but it would at least broaden the range of skills and knowledge around the Cabinet table.
Posted by Pete on 14 Sep 2012
Having background in physics is a hell of a lot more transferable to the job than a background in Being A Politician. A physicist can't design a reactor, or set national policy in nuclear energy - but he can understand a lot of what the engineers are telling him, and also what the climatologists are telling him needs to be done policy-wise.
The problem with recruiting a broader range of ministers is the one I pointed out with Evan Harris; the government lost the possibility of having access to someone with medical training because he lost his seat. It would be somewhat chaotic to have your recruitment pool determined by the largely unrelated fact of who particular constituencies favour for the legislature.
Posted by Pete on 30 Jan 2013
The UK system is supposed to provide people who know the subject: the departments themselves. The US system is equivalent to having high turnover among senior civil servants and is bad for continuity. It's not clear that it produces better results either!
The important issue in both cases is whether the PM / president takes seriously the responsibility to actually identify and fix real problems facing the country. In the case of the Tory government, this is so obviously not true that it's not funny.
(The information is there, easily explained, they just don't like it. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is _very_ good at condensing a complex issue onto one side of A4.)