Jill Kirby: The five ways that government disguises failure as success

Friday 10 July 2009 00:00

Over the past 10 years, layers of government have multiplied, more regulatory bodies have been put in place, thousands of new laws have been passed and greater powers of surveillance have been accorded to the State. Yet as government activism has increased, so public confidence has fallen. How has this happened? In a new report I identify five techniques used by government to disguise failure as success.

First, moving goalposts. In the dilution of standards, selective use of statistics and manipulation of targets, the Government has relied on bending the rules of the game in order to claim success. The reality gap has widened; disbelief and disillusionment have set in, ministers cast around for new ways to convince us that life has got better.

Like putting targets into law: technique No 2. Having failed to meet its (redefined) intermediate targets to abolish child poverty, the Government is now legislating for its abolition. Just like the targets in the Climate Change Act, no one seriously believes this will make it happen.

The third technique is treating government as a public relations exercise, producing a stream of glossy brochures in the guise of departmental reports, consultation papers and "business plans".

Technique No 4 is the collection of vast quantities of data, placing a huge burden on public sector workers and volunteers. The fact that data has been collected does not mean it is used well, but it creates the appearance of compliance.

The fifth and final technique, overlaying all the rest, is complexity – of systems and language. From the elaborate structure of our tax and benefits system to multi-agency partnerships in children's services; from benchmarks and beacons to learning pathways and person-centred planning, this maze of jargon is not only confusing but potentially dangerous.

The only way to bridge the reality gap is to reduce State activism: cut the size of government, abolish targets, free up public services and charities, axe databases. If a new government can abandon the five techniques outlined here, it will not only cut public debt, it will also create a new age of honesty. But learning to let go will not be easy.

The Reality Gap, by Jill Kirby, is published today by the Centre for Policy Studies

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