Britain’s dash for good government (or the difficulty of reversing bad government)

When three former prime ministers condemn a policy, you suspect it might be worth a closer look.

So it is with the announcement by Boris Johnson of a seemingly-innocuous machinery of government tweak – the merging of Britain’s Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

There may be some wry smiles from other civil servants, who resented its reputation as one of the highest-paying government departments.

But the best reason for optimism is that the department doesn’t seem to have been that good at its job.

Responsible for dispensing 0.7% of GDP per year on foreign aid (some £15 billion – or about one third of the defence budget), the Times  points out that it has been subject to stinging criticism from its parliamentary overseers and others.

While the headlines were grabbed by inexplicably eye-catching pin pricks (eg, a £72,000 postgraduate study of South African jazz), the underlying problem was actually finding meaningful projects to spend on.  The pressure to get a fixed budget out the door resulted in an astonishing “£8.7 billion [being] left in the coffers of organisations such as the Global Fund, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and the African Development Fund.”

Naturally with such a demanding task, civil servants needed all the help they could get. The Times writer noted:

“The British aid contracting industry more than doubled in value from £540 million in 2012 to £1.34 billion by 2016. Meanwhile the proportion of every pound of taxpayers’ money spent on consultants rose to 22p, from 12p in 2011. No wonder they are dismayed by the death of Dfid.”

But what ought to give food for thought is how this sorry state of affairs could arise in the first place and then persist for so long, when the underlying problems were pretty obvious.

The legal mandate to spend a large fixed percentage of GDP came from former Conservative prime minister David Cameron (one of the protest three).  The policy was a bright idea to make the Conservative party more cuddly, and probably owed more to focus groups and opinion polling than either principle or intellect.

Once the flagship was launched, Cameron lost interest, or so one must assume given his lack of direction and oversight, and the failure to respond to informed criticism.

But you might think this is less a story of one man’s failings, and more an example of what happens in government when policy is based on a feelgood urge.  Problems go into the queue to be fixed and the machinery of government around a prime minister is not always able to devise a solution which can deliver efficiency, value for money and saving of face.  Given that the cumulative aid spending is in the hundreds of billions of pounds, this tells you something about the inherent problems of democratic centralism.

We shall see if Boris’s departmental merger is a prelude to addressing the problem created by a fixed target and a failure of objective.  The fact he has said the government remains committed to spending 0.7% of GDP a year suggests he is politically wary of repudiating the Cameron commitment.  But he might just be a little more flexible and imaginative in policy and execution.

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