Monday, 23 July 2012

The Municipal Philosopher graduates to the Guardian

The recent piece on the municipal philosopher was picked up by Guardian Society daily:

Brancusi and leadership (revisited)

A piece from a little while back originally written for a book idea by a friend and colleague Jon Harvey which he has now turned into a website which is well worth a look:

Jon wants the website to grow and to gain contributions from others and I know would very much welcome hearing from anyone with an interest.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Values for money: the municipal philosopher

I was very taken with the news this week that a tiny town council in Italy has appointed a municipal philosopher to help individual citizens to think clearly, listen to each other and question themselves and others. So, big kudos to Corigliano d'Otranto. 

One can well imagine the fulminations of the Taxpayers Alliance were such a position to be advertised by an English local authority. Indeed a state of zen would probably be required to deal with the outrage, scorn and ridicule that would pour down on anyone with the temerity to suggest such an appointment.

In fact, the need for municipal philosophers is perhaps about as great at the moment as it has ever been. Michael Sandel's wonderfully lucid book 'Justice' contains any number of observations which would be relevant but here's just one:

'A just society can't be achieved simply by maximising utility or be securing freedom of choice. To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise'.

In the debased political culture that we often see around us there is little encouragement to engage in reasoned argument. Many of our politicians seem happy to pass over responsibility to individuals or to communities as if somehow all preferences can be accommodated. They can't.  

We may be approaching the point at which the idea that freedom of choice expressed predominantly through market mechanisms has gone beyond all acceptable limits. But what will be put in its place?

At root this concerns values. Lack of money means that choices have serious distributional consequences. Some councils have taken a values based approach whether fairness or equality as a means of informing the choices that are being made. 

A municipal philosopher would be well placed to aid that process; asking politicians hard questions about their roles and the basis for their decisions; helping citizens to take on more of the attributes of being good citizens and being challenged about their assumptions and preferences; asking some tough questions of both businesses and third sector organisations about their motivations and contributions.

Commercial firms have on occasion hired corporate 'jesters' giving them some of the freedom that went with the role played by the equivalents in a medieval court to challenge assumptions and put noses out of joint without being subject to the usual penalties. Someone in fact to point out that the emperor might really have no clothes. G4S might have well have benefited from one.

Hospitals have employed ethicists to help doctors to make appallingly difficulty judgements about whether or not to treat patients and the best course of action when all choices seem unpalatable.

So whilst I don't for a moment expect anyone to follow the exact example of Corigliano, it would be heartening to think that the underpinning reason for the appointment - to help people to be better citizens - might have some traction. The thought processes associated with being a citizen are very different to those of being a consumer; paying taxes is about more than shopping; and participating in decision making is different to being a supporter at a football match (whatever one might think from PMQs).

However, in the current economic climate, I suspect that any hard pressed English council would be most likely to welcome applications from that largely forgotten philosophical discipline of alchemy. Preferably from someone with a proven track record.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Should Parliament play a bigger part in central local relations?

Is Parliament thinking more strategically about the role and purpose of local government than the Government? Looks at some of the work that is under way.

The Public Accounts Committee has been examining in some detail the way that accountability for public expenditure will be secured in a more localised future and has found, perhaps not too surprisingly, that the overall approach to accountability for localised services lacks coherence and clarity.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has been examining the case for codification of the relationship between national and local government.

The Communities and Local Government Committee has been examining community budgets and suggesting that more profound changes will be needed in terms of accountability for public funds, both nationally and locally, if these are to come close to fulfilling their potential. Through the Councillors and the Community inquiry, the committee is also examining the role of local politicians as leaders of communities and neighbourhoods and the associated questions of accountability.

The Public Administration Select Committee has (as I have commented before on this blog considering strategic thinking in Government and raising some questions which go to the heart of the unresolved issues about central-local relationships.

Also rumbling away in the background is the Alignment project which will bring a much clearer line of sight between the Estimates being voted by Parliament and the resource accounts which are produced by Departments. This could result in changes to the way that spending plans are put to Parliament, and significantly expand the scope to make input prior to the approval of final spending plans.

Some of these Committees are even talking to each other!

From these various pieces of work could come something quite profound in terms of the role that Parliament (not just the Executive) might play in central - local relations:

- an embedded set of expectations about the role of local government and how to facilitate more collaborative working arrangements between services at local level

- a joint committee of other form of Parliamentary apparatus to oversee how that is implemented in practice; and

- a greater opportunity for Parliament to consider the implications of the spending plans being put forward by the Executive which would give greater emphasis to what happens before money is distributed alongside the impressive interrogation of what happens once it has gone out of the door.

The last of these points is significantly underplayed in current discussions.  The reality is that the detail of public expenditure allocations is rarely the subject of detailed scrutiny in Parliament. Even more pertinently, the combined effect of the different allocation in terms of the total amount of resources being made available for a given locality is never considered.

Parliament, in voting through the Estimates and the annual settlements that cover local services and local government, may engage with some of the bigger distributional questions but each is looked at in isolation.  Parliament does not consider any changes that would reflect the different local circumstances across the country and which might improve value for money. 

Some steps are being taken through City Deals, but to make much more of a reality of the rhetoric about more genuinely devolved arrangements would mean changes within the Executive in the way in which money is allocated and presented to Parliament and some changes in the Legislature in terms of how it scrutinises the proposals of the Executive. It would be even better if there were some choreography between changes in each.

At the moment there is probably greater likelihood that much of the work being undertaken in Parliament will grind into the sand. But there is the opportunity to build on some of the questions already being asked and to push forward on significant changes which would make the rhetoric about greater devolution turn into something which is a product of the way that Government and Parliament work together rather than something which is currently largely frustrated by those very arrangements.