Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Voting for doctors

I went to a bit of the Compass conference, and heard Ken Livingstone, Polly Toynbee and Jon Cruddas speak, all of whom were entertaining and had some good ideas about new ideas which would help make Britain fairer and more equal.

Instead of bringing some of these ideas to a wider audience, Neal Lawson decided to write an article for the Sunday Times in which he chose some of his own ideas about how to make our society more free or equal. The problem is, well, have a look:

"But what if we are given a collective ability to motivate the staff to perform better? Then we can improve the big things about public services, such as an underperforming school, for the whole community and not just be confused consumers struggling on our own. School governors, if properly trained and paid, could perform a much deeper role. And what if the headmaster or mistress was elected by the local community? That would serve as a huge incentive towards improvement. The same approach works for the local GP surgery." (my emphasis)

This is almost satirical in the way that it takes a principle far beyond absurdity, to the point of arguing "the problem with my doctor is that he is unelected and has no democratic mandate". It is a little bit like the stereotype about how after the revolution everything will be decided by workers' committees, that somehow elections for headteachers or doctors would drive up standards according to some mysterious process which Neal doesn't explain. There is masses and masses of evidence about how participatory democracy can complement representative democracy and help to improve public services, all of which appears to have passed him by.

But it shows up quite clearly a big problem with Compass. Many of their conferences and high profile supporters are very good and include people who are knowledgeable about what they are talking about, but there is absolutely no quality control whatsoever. Fundraising e-mails for pamphlets in the run up to elections, stupid gimmicky marketing speak and off the wall policies undermine the good things that they do. If they stuck to the good stuff, they'd be much more effective and have many more members.

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