Saturday, 15 May 2010

Armchair Technocrats

A strain of argument that surfaces from time to time is the criticism of politicians' CVs when it comes to cabinet appointments. Charlotte Gore provides an example of the argument, mocking the CVs of Osborne and May.

Now as easy and enjoyable an exercise as this sort of thing undoubtedly is, it is a bit unfair on our politicians. Like it or not, running a country is not like running a business and staffing cannot operate the same way.

There are three things that apply when you are filling a corporate vacany: 1) You have a clear image of what the job entails, 2) you scout around for the best qualified candidate for that job and 3) you pay them the market rate (or above) for their labour in order to induce them in. None of this works in politics.

1) Ideology ruins this. In nearly all departments different parties will want different things from the post. This applies to some roles more than others, but it is this lack of common conception of purpose that lies at the heart of why the technocratic approach doesn't work. Only in a post-political, managerial government could the private sector employment pattern really work for Ministers of State (the overlap between technocracy and undemocratic governments is no accident of history). For as long as political choice remains, different parties will approach the same positions in different ways and fill them accordingly.

2) This means that a candidate must be assessed upon ideological and political criteria beyond the contents of a printed CV for a private sector job application. Whether or not the ideas of a candidate align with those of the government - and whether or not they can work well within government - is rightly central to cabinet appointments, as they have to enact the policies that have gained an electoral mandate. If technical expertise were placed before politics as the principal (but not sole, by any means) criterion for selection, it would create a system wherein individualistic ministers who considered themselves experts in their field might resent 'interference' in their ministry by the government at large. A government that was a loose confederation of independent ministries would lack coherency, accountability and credibility - it would not work.

3) The political scene also serves to depress pay, which narrows recruitment. Ask people if they think that the most important cabinet jobs in the country should be done by the most able people possible, you'll find few to disagree. Put to those same people the wages that would need to be offered to recruit such talent, and you will hear a lot about 'troughing politicians' and them 'being in it for themselves'.

The truth is that for those very clever people who do reach the cabinet (or enter politics at all) it usually entails a sometimes substantial pay cut, not to mention a constant chorus of execration in the press and from 'the public'. So cut Cabinet ministers - and indeed politicians in general - some slack: many could be making an awful lot more money elsewhere.

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