Friday, June 27, 2008

Probing the policy vacuum 2

Scoop's Gordon Campbell has posted the second part of his examination of National's policy vacuum, focusing on telecommunications, employment law and the environment. But its the other topics - PPPs and the public service - that are the most interesting. On PPPs (which National is proposing to use for transport, in schools and hospitals, prisons, and anywhere else it can find an excuse to funnel public money into the pockets of its cronies), Campbell points out the very real problems with accountability that occur (short version: we take all the risks, they get all the money). On the public sector, he highlights the possibility (first raised by Fran O'Sullivan in the Herald earlier in the week) that National would fold the Ministry of Economic Development back into Treasury.

The latter sounds like a point of interest only to public sector wonks, but its quite important. One of the benefits of the Revolution was a focus on "contestable policy advice" - the idea that competing departments would present their views, creating a "marketplace of ideas" which would result in Ministers getting better advice than if they only listened to their own departments. Of course, we got this for entirely selfish reasons - it allowed Treasury to stick its fingers in everyone else's pies, and in the 80's and early 90's environment where they had all the policy analysts (and other departments' budgets were cut to ensure they couldn't afford any), allowed them to utterly dominate the discourse and bend Ministers to their will. This process began to break down in the mid - late 90's, but Treasury still dominated the scene. One of the reasons for Labour's creation of the MED and MSD mega-ministries was to correct this, and ensure true contestability - a struggle of equals rather than a one-sided pseudo-contest. And it largely seems to have worked. Of course, a side effect is that Ministers are exposed to ideas beyond Treasury's ideological free-market blatherings, so you can see why the advocates of restarting the Revolution would want to roll it back.