NZ public service reform for the UK?

It’s not unusual for governments to decide the solution to their frustrations is to tweak the machinery of government.  Nor for senior public servants to channel those ambitions to safety.

But things look more serious in the UK.  A sequence of reports from high-powered ‘independent’ commissions and well-connected think tanks are floating proposals which bear more than a resemblance to the state sector reforms implemented in New Zealand at the end of last century.

For one of the key players, the seeds of change were planted back in 2010. Back then, Michael Gove (now the Minister for the Cabinet Office) was put in charge of education.  He coined the term ‘the Blob’ to describe the coalition of resistant civil servants and external ideologists who opposed his proposals to change the school system.  And helping him on the Blob job was Dominic Cummings – PM Boris Johnson’s erstwhile chief strategist.

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Has ‘Johnsonism’ arrived?

Britain’s new health minister, Sajid Javid, says he will keep wearing a mask after formal restrictions are removed in the next fortnight.  It’s a more political than public health gesture.  Unless perhaps he’s meeting unvaccinated ministerial visitors from Australia or New Zealand.

Britain’s Covid debate is morphing faster than the virus.  Thanks to the fast spreading Delta variant and a super-charged vaccination programme it’s plausible that pretty much everyone bar Scottish lighthouse keepers will have had Covid antibodies delivered to them by the end of the year via neighbours or needle. 

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G7 – not so good in the margins

Some say it wouldn’t be a proper G7 summit without a row between the UK and France.  In this case, Boris Johnson taking the opportunity to ask France’s President Emmanuel Macron how he would feel if Toulousain could not sell their sausages in Paris.

The context for his remark is the negotiation between the UK and the EU over the application of the Brexit treaty to Northern Ireland.

Readers might recall our suggestion at the beginning of the year that the trade arrangements might prove a “charter for squabbling”. Perhaps that was too optimistic.

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Vaccine politics look like normal politics – just more extreme

Point of Order has been consistent in anticipating an irritable post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU.  But who would have thought vaccine politics would develop as a major flashpoint, let alone a possible relationship breaker?

Even hyper-critical Brits have had to acknowledge that the UK government is a leader in the global vaccination rollout.  And as more background information seeps into the public arena, the British government’s decisiveness in supporting vaccine development, committing early to contracts and driving mass vaccination is looking better and better.

But the same comparisons spell political danger for European politicians. Co-ordination by the EU appears to have resulted in slowness: slowness in making commitments, in tweaking the production process and in approving the product.

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Boris Johnson: the man who saved Europe?

This year has seen some spectacular political victories: Jacinda Ardern in NZ’s election and now Boris’s post-Brexit trade treaty with the EU. But having secured a triumph, the risk is in resting on the laurels, when one should be looking to exploit to the full.

And Boris’s victory does look comprehensive. His critics alternated between saying he would never get a deal or it would be a very bad one. In fact, he has achieved his main objectives of rolling over the existing tariff-and-quota-free trade terms and securing recognition of the UK’s sovereign equality in managing the ongoing relationship.

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Covid vaccine is important but it’s only a beginning

Never let a crisis go to waste, said Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first Chief of Staff.  In the Covid-stricken northern hemisphere, some people have taken the message to heart.

The mood feels different from in the first wave.  Despite London moving into tier three measures, the volume of traffic is consistent with many people having adapted to new conditions.  The roll-out of the UK’s vaccination programme indicates a clearer direction and sense of urgency from the British government.  There is now a path, with the possibility of rapid improvement.

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Europe’s false step on tech

You’ve got to hand it to the EU’s leadership.  They are planning to welcome a Joe Biden victory with a proposal for renewed and refreshed co-operation – preferably on Europe’s terms.  

It is billed as a “once-in-a-generation” offer for the US to join the EU’s many committees and after the usual excruciating discussion, agree to adopt its approach in areas like digital regulation, competition policy, security and post-Covid action. 

No doubt a Biden administration will find something to like in the European menu.  But not as much as the Europeans might hope.

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Covid: an endgame taking shape?

Things are moving fast on Covid, perhaps faster than we realise.  But as Europe painfully grinds its way through a second lockdown, it’s easy to miss this.

First of all, it’s more of a lockdown-lite this time.  Policy is more nuanced and – although most people are too polite to say – has more or less converged on a Swedish approach.

Secondly, the second wave so far looks less deadly. Excess mortality is considerably below the levels of earlier in the year. And while the institutional response hardly rates as an exemplar, there are plenty of signs of successful adaptation, of government policy certainly and, perhaps more importantly, of individual and business behaviour.

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Innovation works very well indeed

Matt Ridley – former science editor of The Economist and prolific popular science writer – has tackled a slippery subject in his book How Innovation Works’. He succeeds in painting a vibrant and at times counter intuitive picture of this process. One that policy makers and public alike can usefully ponder.

A major contribution is demystification.  He trashes the model of a tortured genius locked in the lab. Innovation comes from lots of people, competing or in concert, working by trial and error, sharing or stealing knowledge. It occurs when the conditions are right, because it bubbles out of the accumulation and testing of knowledge (hence the prevalence of simultaneous invention from calculus to light bulbs). ‘Ideas having sex’ is his metaphor of choice. And this tends to happen where innovators can gather and experiment free of restrictions.   

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Brexit ho – is a deal in sight?

On again, off again.  Then, after British PM Boris Johnson’s statement that there was no point in continuing negotiations without movement from the EU, there are signals that a trade and economic deal might be possible in the next few weeks.

We shall see.  But it’s a good moment to pay tribute to the skill of the negotiators and their principals.

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