Ponderings

I just realised I haven’t posted to this blog for over a year! Maintaining regular posts clearly wasn’t working by I still feel this could be a useful depository for ideas I don’t otherwise get the opportunity to express. Hence, some ponderings from a while ago.

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The fundamental problem with the Windrush scandal – and Home Office immigration policy – is the dogmatic fixation with standard procedure and the refusal to devolve decision making to front-line staff. The centralisation of problem-solving is a bad move by any organisation.

One of the basic arguments for capitalism is that innovation happens more quickly if the problem-solving duties are shared between everyone (or at least those with enough capital to start a business) rather than limited to a committee of central planners. But that devolution of problem-solving duties between institutions is limited in what it can achieve if it fails to be continued within institutions. A business with a few men and women in a boardroom setting blanket policies for stores or outlets across the country will not do as well for its customers as one where local managers and staff have discretion over how best to implement them. And a government department dealing with disparate groups of people in all sorts of circumstances cannot stick rigidly to centrally devised procedures and avoid frequent tragedy or farce.

Another policy that may have worked well were it not for centralised problem-solving is the Spare Room Subsidy, or “Bedroom Tax”. The principle behind the policy was a sound one – to address the shortage of council homes by encouraging those with unused bedrooms to downsize, in order to free up suitable accommodation for homeless families. Rather than forcibly removing tenants from their homes, the method chosen to achieve this was to ask those with unused bedrooms to pay a “subsidy” for the privilege. In theory, a sound policy.

But come implementation time, fractures appeared. For many people, there was no suitable council housing with fewer bedrooms for them to move to – particularly those who needed adapted homes. Some people used their spare rooms for bulky medical equipment, like dialysis machines, that they simply couldn’t find space for in a smaller property. And some people, for reasons of mental or physical health, would find it significantly harder than the average person to relocate.

The “fix” proposed was an exemption for disabled people – again a blanket procedure pushed by centralised decision makers. This too is inadequate and unfair. It takes a blind person many months and years to familiarise themselves with a new area, so it is right they should be exempted. But if a wheelchair user whose children have flown the nest has two spare bedrooms, and there is suitable adapted accommodation just down the road, is it really unreasonable to suggest they downsize to make way for a young family in need of a wheelchair friendly home? Likewise, is it right that an able-bodied tenant who has lived in the same house for forty years and built a settled life in his or her community be penalised if there is no alternative council housing available within the area? This policy has created fear, distress and hardship for tens of thousands of people across the country; but its failings could be redressed with one simple tweak: having a local, frontline human being with the freedom to problem-solve making the final decision on a case-by-case basis.

Policies like “hostile environment” and the spare room subsidy/bedroom tax betray a worrying trend among right-wing intellectuals to find the simplest, most elegant solution to every problem. It is a thing of delight as a thinker or a theorist to stumble upon such solutions. But when it comes to policymaking over areas where there is a lot of variation between cases, great nuance is required. The self-same fetishisation of parsimony which is an asset to the mathematician and the philosopher makes itself dangerous in the hands of the government minister.

An equally undesirable fetish once existed amongst intellectuals on the left, who took enormous pleasure in devising schemes and systems that were are complex, abstract and opaque to human enquiry as possible. Such schemes were a delight for the mind – and a disaster for effective policymaking.

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