Act: Inspiration

Decent Gov Now

November 18, 2020

By definition our government should be decent. But it is not.

Being decent requires ‘conforming with generally accepted standards of respectable or moral behaviour’ or performing to ‘an acceptable standard’. But, according to MORI’s Trends showing satisfaction with the government from 1997 to the present it is hard to find a single occasion in the last 23 years where the UK public have been more satisfied than dissatisfied with the way the Government has been running the country. This is not an acceptable standard.

MORI’s September 2019 Political Monitor shows that 8 in 10 people are dissatisfied with how Boris Johnson’s government is running the country.

Our government’s response to Covid – all the way from the initial PPE fiasco, the mixed messages, the late and very expensive failing app, and the lack of evidence-based policy, through to the lack of accurate testing data and the devastation wreaked on our economy – highlights just how unacceptable our government has become.

Polling by YouGov asked citizens from countries across the world how they think their government has fared in response to Covid. Whilst many countries believed their government and political leaders had handled the pandemic well, the UK’s response came joint bottom alongside Mexico, with minus 15 points.

Our government has also consistently failed to provide a suitable response to the climate emergency. Vague promises of a zero carbon economy by 2050 are too little too late, and far behind other countries. Finland committed to be carbon-neutral by 2035, Norway has a 2030 target. Our government can only really be judged by its actions – not its words – and its record in office has been pitiful: They have supported fracking, blocked onshore wind developments and displayed unlimited enthusiasm for new roads and runways.

This does not conform with generally accepted standards of respectable or moral behaviour.

Our government is no longer decent.

Perhaps, in this highly complex and rapidly evolving world, centralized government is no longer fit for purpose? The relationships between our environment, our economies and our geo-political systems have become increasingly more complex over the last 400 years. But our system of government has remained the same.

Meanwhile, technology and its application to business is now evolving faster than at any time in history. Take Google, or Amazon as examples and you find that decentralization is key to their success. The concept of ‘subsidiarity’ – the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level – has been embraced by big business. Yet in politics, to which the term subsidiarity originally refers, we are stuck with an out-dated, ineffective, unacceptable relic from the past.

Decentralisation will prevail. Ask the staff of Encyclopedia Britannica how they feel about it; They may not sing the praises of Wikipedia for putting them out of jobs, but they do have a keen understanding of the ways in which decentralised models can out-compete and out-perform centralised systems. The fact that Bitcoins are still worth  in the region of $10,000 and that no authority in the world has managed to ‘shut down’ BitTorrent should be all the evidence we need to prove the resilience of decentralised systems.

Decentralizing our government, defining and deciding what should be handled at each level, from parish, to ward, to council and, ultimately national government will not be easy – but the very act of deciding is exactly what’s been lacking from UK politics for too long. People deserve, and want, a say in the decisions by which they are affected. We don’t want to  out-source the management of our lives to politicians that pretend to have our interests at heart when it comes to elections but ignore us and squander the planet for the next five years.

In general terms, the decentralization of central government will:

  • Make a more stable democratic system;
  • Increase government efficiency and effectiveness;
  • Stimulate the creation of a stable basis for economic development at a local and national level;
  • Make more transparent governance;
  • Involve citizens in decision-making.

These are all things which we need – and which would seem hard for any politician to argue against. There is an increasing apathy around UK politics – and voting in general elections in particular. In the 1950 UK General Election the voter turnout was 84%, whereas in the 2015 it was 66.1%. This worries our politicians because it undermines the legitimacy of the incumbent government, as well as acting as an indirect indicator of distrust and disbelief in democracy as a political idea.

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But the blossoming of numerous community and mutual aid groups during 2020 demonstrates the growing interest and enthusiasm for locally led –  and locally delivered solutions.

We need to decentralize our government, starting right now.

Academic studies have identified eight essential preconditions to avert the dangers of decentralization, which are:

  1. Social preparedness and mechanisms to prevent elite capture
  2. Strong administrative and technical capacity at the higher levels
  3. Strong political commitment at the higher levels
  4. Sustained initiatives for capacity-building at the local level
  5. Strong legal frameworks for transparency and accountability
  6. Transformation of local government organizations into high performing organizations
  7. Appropriate reasons to decentralize: Intentions matter
  8. Effective judicial system, citizens’ oversight and anti corruption bodies

These and other lessons from hard won battles towards decentralisation provide the initial sign-posts for our journey to decent government. We may not have all the answers we will need right now, but we know for a fact that the centralized model is failing. There will be other inputs, sign posts and directions to help guide us to our destination – where people feel in control of the decisions which affect their lives – and where quality of life is of an accepted standard.

One of the first stepping stones on the journey to a decent government would be the election of thousands of new, independent, local political representatives – as championed by Flatpack 2021. The Flatpack Democracy campaign supports people to reclaim local politics from the systems and political parties that are currently failing them. Their aim is to support communities to take back power by winning local elections, of which there are thousands in May 2021.

The citizens’ oversight which decentralization requires is exactly the same as the third demand of Extinction Rebellion“Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice”. This is the same emphasis at the centre of the  Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill. The Bill centres around a citizens assembly to act as a new branch of government with legislative power. Under the Bill, if a vote was passed by the proposed assembly with a majority of 80%, then the government would be obliged to pass it into law (unless the proposal involved public funds or charges). This could be a highly effective method of generating laws that political parties would normally shy away from, for fear of losing votes.

After years watching our centralised government fail at pretty much everything – whilst becoming less decent in every way – now, with the Covid madness exacerbating the need for systemic change, the time feels ripe for fundamental change.

Participatory, local democracy is the solution to our systemic issues. There is clear economic, social and political evidence that a Covid recovery plan towards a green economy is the only logical way forward. But this should not be governed by one centralized body. It should be devolved and developed locally, via a process of subsidiarity which empowers the best local, national and international responses.

If we want decent government we have to build it ourselves – via a networked, national campaign which brings together all the various NGOs, green groups, community groups, and mutual aid groups, that are working on these ideas, and related issues – to highlight Flatpack and #DecentGov as the unifying opportunity we have to make deliver positive change.

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley is a marketing and communications advisor with many years experience in sustainability. Oliver graduated from Central Saint Martins and then studied an Msc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. He wrote his thesis on Encouraging Environmentally Responsible Behaviour and specialises in communications and marketing strategies which encourage democracy and sustainability. Oliver Co-Founded The Open Co-op and developed a concept for an open source communications system PLANET in 2004. He recently updated PLANET as a vision of an open source operating system for a collaborative sustainable economy.

Tags: new economy, participatory budgeting