Power to beat Bureaucrats

Filed under: Governance,Innovation,Policy,Politics — lenand @ 8:11 am
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I have a friend who was a local councillor. I have great respect for his intellect. He has energy … and the ability to get things done. He even challenges anti-social behaviour on the streets. He is also ambitious – so, naturally, he became a parliamentary candidate. In the course of a conversation, I asked him, “Why do you want to become an MP?” His answer surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t. He just said … “Power”.

It’s only a sample of one, but it made me wonder. “How many people are in politics for the same reason? Would they admit it? Is the sensation of being “in Power” such a huge motivator?” I suggest that it is, and it may be capable of mathematical analysis.

There is a wealth of academic literature on Power – but in my brief survey, I have not seen it described as a “vector”. My scientific background taught me that a vector has both magnitude and direction. Power, in the political context, seems to have both attributes. Power promotes, or prevents action. How much happens depends on the magnitude of the push and the immovability of the object. Power operates upwards, downwards and sideways; even Left and Right.

Power seems to be a prime motivator for all our politicians and senior officials. That’s in both central and local government. There’s Power to develop policy, Power to spread ideas and Power to influence more Powerful people. Power blocks (perhaps these are political parties) can move a nation, not just a local council.

Then I identified a paradox. When I have asked serving Members of Parliament about their Power; they say they have no real power. They imply that they are powerless. They say that the Civil Servants hold “the Power”. Local authorities seem to react in a reverse manner. Almost without exception, officers and councillors were vehement about their independence as elected bodies.

  • “We have the authority.”
  • “We do not, … take instructions from Civil Servants.”
  • “We only do, … what the Law says we must do, or can do.”

In reality, Local Government knows that Central Government does exercise Power. They control the funding. There’s nothing more effective in influencing local decisions than funding. Even though Government policy and the Treasury may not have the statutory power – for all practical purposes it makes no difference. So local government is pragmatic about the exercise of Power from the centre.

In the real world, there are always opposing political forces. There’s always compromise and a balancing act. As we have seen recently, in the Coalition, fundamental principles can be dropped and promises broken. People shift their positions under political pressure. However, a compromise is ultimately reached. What is more difficult to predict, is whether the status quo has reached a stable, or an unstable, equilibrium.

Extending the vector analogy, in a simple example, to democracy:

  • People, with the capacity and energy to take decisions, are the motive force for initiating action.
  • There is top-down direction. People are given authority from above. People in Power need constraints or limitations to what they can and cannot do.
  • Mandates come from bottom-up. Power is supported, either passively or actively, from below by constituents, public opinion or employees. Support from below is what generates the greatest Power.

If any of these vector components are missing, then the misuse of power is a definite risk. Anarchic or totalitarian behaviours are possible results. Corruption of Power is devastating to civilised society.

Society is also constantly changing; there’s an ebb and flow of opinion. Yesterday’s solutions may be wrong today, or tomorrow. People in Power must recognise shifts in the equilibrium. They need the capacity to listen, to react to changes, and to acknowledge social pressures. In a democratic society, the people at the top of the hierarchy should respond to opinions from the bottom. Then, the majority feel more empowered. Problems arise if the minority feel disempowered and disenfranchised. In extreme cases, minorities opt out of the democratic process completely – and we have all suffered from the consequences of extremist action.

Ultimately, I have to believe that the Majority should have the Power, balancing forces from:

  • The People,
  • The Politicians, and
  • The Bureaucrats

Does anybody know of any mathematical models that can simulate the interaction of many small forces pushing in many directions against the inertia of bureaucracies and the sensitivity of minorities?  We should be able to plot the progress of Power in Politics.


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