Civilising our public servants

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Monday, September 19, 2016
Ben Balliger


The Conservatives must make public servants and politicians more accountable, argues Ben Balliger

Civil servants and politicians at all levels can take inordinate numbers of decisions in short periods of time. It is not in the best interests of society (and makes governance simply unworkable) if each of those decisions entails an unnecessarily detailed investigation and assessment. If society were not interested in competent decision making, we would not have a competitive democratic political process and would instead periodically rotate executive roles between philosopher kings and village idiots alike. But we are interested – in fact, very interested - in making sure that decisions are made in the right way for the right reasons, even if we do not agree with them.

Public office holders and servants are placed in positions of trust by society. We trust them to make decisions competently and for the right reasons, when they do not they breach that trust and this must have consequences.

Decisions of the state can have such devastating consequences to individuals and the wider community that it is only right, in such circumstances, to expect that such decisions are:

1. properly considered, with all the evidence that could be reasonably expected to have been gathered in an appropriate timescale;

2. made objectively, without conflicting interests;

3. made logically (what is reasonable balanced with consideration for what is best for those directly affected and the interests of the wider community);

4. made with consideration to all concerned as to the effect of the decision now and in the future; and

5. made very swiftly when people are being harmed or likely to be harmed physically and/or mentally.

You would be forgiven for thinking, after a quick survey of most areas of public life in Twenty-First Century Britain, that far reaching decisions were being made, on an all too frequent basis, without recourse to most or all of these essential ingredients to competent decision making. Decision making needs to be at its best in the state regulation of health, town planning, road planning, the armed forces, criminal sentencing, personal freedom, the protection of the environment and the protection of vulnerable people.

It is the first and last of these responsibilities where extremely poor and even perverse decision making has led to shocking failures to protect those most vulnerable, whether it be the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, Oldham and Rotherham Councils, or the multiple departmental failures that have been exposed in criminal cases involving celebrities and politicians accused of being paedophiles. These cases are so appalling that it would be remiss not to question how many other horrendous failures are still ongoing (and on what scale), and how many have been successfully suppressed.

These scandals all exhibit similar failures and inappropriate motives in decision making. Motivated in the main by political expediency and self-serving interest, these cases showed a willingness to ignore the needs of those who depended on them and in some cases work against the needs of the vulnerable and all illustrate the state's failure to hold culpable individuals to account.

This is unacceptable. Individuals need to be brought to account for negligent, selfserving or malicious decision making. The failure to hold such individuals to account is not only unjust to those victims left in their wake, but allows such individuals to continue unhindered in public life making inappropriate decisions and can only encourage others to do the same. It should not then be surprising that by failing to punish these people, such or like-minded individuals will not only continue to make decisions poorly or inappropriately, but will actively seek to cover their mistakes using their authority and public funds.

To prevent such extreme failures by public servants and politicians alike in the future, I propose specific criminal legislation that, while narrowly constructed so as not to hinder everyday decision making, hangs like the Sword of Damocles over those that would negligently or wilfully ignore those most dependent on them. The legislation should be subject to general criminal defences, such as the legitimate use or authorisation of force.

A failure to follow some or all of the five core parts of decision making outlined above could form the basis of determining whether a criminal act has been committed, whether by neglect or with intention. Punishment must not only include prison sentencing for the most serious offenders, but also permanent exclusion from ever holding public office or being employed by the state in any capacity ever again. I would even go so far as to advocate the removal of any public funded pension in extreme cases.

Such legislation would also need to protect public bodies from any claims of unfair dismissal and end the unacceptable position where people are rewarded by promotion, carry on in different public bodies or are awarded financial compensation for their unacceptable failures.

Being sorry after these terrible events is quite simply not enough. 

Ben Balliger is Secretary of the Bow Group

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Conference 2014 on 27/09/2014. Published online 19/09/2016