I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that any politicians are hypocrites. Mine are nothing of the sort, and even if they were I want to talk today about national politicians. It must be hard for them, briefing, counter-briefing, lobbyists, interest groups, constituents. It’s not surprising that they mis-think, sometimes, and fail to recognise inconsistencies between their arguments, other arguments they make on other issues, or arguments made by their colleagues with whom they are, in theory, entirely in accord.
I’m currently finding a number of things hard to reconcile. The Culture Secretary appears to think that Councils producing newspapers is bad news for the local newspaper industry. Fair enough – I think he’s wrong and that it has much bigger problems than that: at the moment I’d particularly cite the collapse in advertising from estate agents as a serious effect on the bottom line, but also in many areas the decline in reporting quality (widespread, but not universal) and the growth of the internet have made it less appealing to buy a paper. He seems to have some measure of support from the other parties for his criticism.
The Local Government Minister, in contrast, continues to funnel substantial sums into bodies called Regional Improvement and Efficiency Parterships, designed to find ways of getting “more for less” out of local government. One way they have found and promoted (pdf) is to make greater use of online recruitment portals, and spend less money on administration and postage for job applications, and less on job adverts in… local newspapers. I imagine one of the ‘quick wins’ when David Cameron is looking for savings will be to move a lot of public recruitment out of The Guardian and onto the internet. Will politicians leap to the defence of the national press too, when this happens?
More importantly, if you want to look for an example of the public sector using unnecessary competition to destroy a public service because they don’t understand how it works, you don’t need to go as far as local government and newspapers – the deliberate and planned withdrawal of services from Post Office based operation is substantially responsible for the required scale of the post office closure programme. Fine for those with lots of alternatives, whether because they are wealthy areas or because they are dense and urban, but for large suburban estates where the private sector premises are boarded up, or rural villages where the post office was the only shop in the first place, substantially less helpful.
Ironically, it is Councils stepping forward in some of these cases to save local post offices, but there’s a real risk this will fall victim to the Post Office beancounters, who are relying on the closure of Post Office X in order to force people to drive to Post Office Y, thereby rendering it viable. Never mind that at the post office nearest my office there is a queue out of the door for much of the day, and round the block between 12 and 2 – more people might go if the queue was shorter – it’s not a paradox!
You can’t always have everything you want, but the model whereby if a useful local service is in the public sector it must be cut, outsourced, privatised, competed out of existence or closed, but if it’s in the private sector it must be supported at all costs by taxpayers’ money and non-competition accords, without any real thought given to the value for money obtained, strikes me as – at best – sloppy thinking.