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Matthew Parris

Can anyone defeat the town-hall zombies?

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

Others have already swelled a chorus of rage against Rotherham -council for removing three foster children from the couple caring for them, on the grounds that the couple were members of Ukip; and the rage is justified. But few sane people will need persuading that the -council’s judgment was wrong, and I don’t intend to bang on about it. Within that statement — ‘few sane people’, etc — lies the puzzle I want to -examine.

And a puzzle it is; because those who took the decision were not insane. The fact is that the Rotherham’s Children and Young People’s Services department will be staffed by people whom we would not, on meeting, describe as abnormal; yet they and their director — who on the radio sounded like a perfectly level-headed Scottish lady — reached a reasoned judgment that to much of the rest of Britain looks crazy; and thereafter gave every impression of surprise that it should even be questioned. That’s the puzzle: who are these sane people reaching insane conclusions? How did they get like that? Why have their careers prospered?

Two clues are to be found in the following statement, not from a local government officer in Rotherham, but the elected Labour leader of the council, Roger Stone: ‘If the professionals give advice, we take it. We are going to investigate — we always would if somebody complains. We are looking to make sure all the correct procedures were carried out before the decision was made.’

The first clue lies in Cllr Stone’s preposterous ‘If the professionals give advice, we take it.’ Who does he think is in charge — the members or the officers? Councillors should be regularly questioning, often disputing and sometimes blocking officers’ decisions. Cllr Stone appears to think his elected members are there only to ensure that their council is run by ‘professionals’, to whom everything is then left. On Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils too there has been this gradual retreat over half a century or more in local councillors’ view of their own role; and a matching advance in local government officers’ view of theirs.

Of course elected members would not be expected to join officers in the reaching of each decision, or even to be familiar with each, or sign decisions off. But they should require senior officers to keep them in touch with all the important, or most awkward, or politically sensitive cases; and, when learning after the event that a decision was controversial, be prepared to step in. ‘If the professionals give advice, we take it’ sends grotesquely the wrong signal to Rotherham people anxious that their councillors should take up their concerns and where necessary intervene.

Cllr Stone shows some dim recognition of this when he protests ‘We are going to investigate — we always would if somebody complains.’ But he at once qualifies that undertaking, stripping it of force. Explaining what he understands by the term ‘investigate’, he offers us the second clue to the riddle of the rationalisation of lunacy: ‘We are looking to make sure all the correct procedures were carried out before the decision was made.’

Oh what a bleak, bloodless, chillingly robotic remark is that! I heard myself, on reading it for the first time, shouting out loud, ‘No, you tick-box Timothy! No! Your job’s to make sure the right decision was made, not that the right procedures were carried out before it was made!’

No double in due course the council will be forced to admit they simply made a mistake, but what makes the blood boil in their immediate and instinctive reaction is the implication that human judgment can be removed from a decision-making process; that at a certain happy moment early in the 21st century, the science of local government attained a state of such perfect precision that no poor, fallible human mind was any longer required to make any actual, fallible human judgment. It became sufficient to enumerate and validate the inputs — the criteria that had to be met, the questions that had to be asked, the people who had to be informed, and the allowable reasons upon which the decision might be grounded — and the machine would then whirr, click and finally ping and, hey presto, you had your output: your decision. Should any appeal then arise, the review would consist in checking that the machine was working, and that the appropriate data had been fed into it.

In my twenties I attempted postgraduate studies in political science at Yale University. What I’ve described above was very much what postgraduates were then confident could be achieved for the political process in advanced democracies. I remember my class — sane, clever young men and women — being given rulers, back-copies of the New York Times, a computer program, and the instruction to measure the number of column inches devoted to amelioration in East-West relations, then measure the column inches devoted to increased economic inter-dependence between the two blocs, then feed both sub-totals into the computer, and finally ask it to measure the correlation and tell us the result.

People believed that sort of stuff in the 1970s. Few believe it now. But it seems those few and their successors have been disproportionately attracted to local government administration. There is a community of town-hall zombies moving, little-noticed, among our wider community in 21st–century Britain. They’re not at first easy to spot. In their domestic lives they differ little from us; they live, love, sing, dance, socialise, marry and have children. But during office hours they revert to a robotic state. Their community survives — even thrives — by hiring each other, promoting each other, standing (sometimes) for elected office in each other’s councils, sustaining each other’s morale by professional networking and reading the Guardian together, and sucking the life out of any real person unfortunate enough to end up working in local government — until in despair he surrenders and quits.

These, the Process People, are proving utterly impervious to the growing swirl of common sense gusting around their brick and concrete citadels. How are they to be dislodged? Eric Pickles, you’re no obvious Batman, and all before you have failed. But if you can’t do it, who can?

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