Efficiency must be good, right? We all want things to be run more efficiently. Obviously. So we should get more businessmen into government. More Lord Brownes, and this time people who didn’t help create oil disasters. They’ll make everything work better. But is it so simple?
For one thing, if you suspected that the aim of the current government was to remove wealth from ordinary people so that their rich friends could have more of it, you might immediately question whether a more efficient government were a good thing. It would simply make the government more efficient at transferring money from ordinary people to rich people. But let’s assume for a moment that a government could also have benevolent aims and answer the question on that basis.
Can we really take it at face value?
Firstly we should look at what is hiding behind this Cult of Efficiency in politics. The valuing of efficiency, in a ‘free market’ world equates to the valuing of success in gaining wealth. It begins to look like a slightly sneaky way of saying: rich people are better than us. Valuing efficiency is portrayed by politicians as a very modern philosophy. But perhaps it is just a new instance of a very old philosophy: that the rich are rich because they are right, and because they are right, and rich, they should rule us.
What else might be hiding behind this valuing of efficiency? As well as promoting corporations as ‘virtuous’, the philosophy also coincidentally suits the political agendas of corporations: their chief political demands are that the government impose less regulation on them (despite showing themselves to be and even admitting to being completely amoral actors) and that they be obliged to pay less tax. Smaller government means less tax for them. So we can see why corporate leaders would be keen to help government along with their efficiency drives. This explains why the Cult of Efficiency is not just a UK problem but a global problem. The same people have influence all over the world. This doesn’t require a conspiracy, just certain people pursuing their self-interest. You can see (quite a long) debate about that here.
What are the alternatives?
But perhaps more importantly, if we value efficiency so highly, what are we not valuing? What else might government might be concerned with if it weren’t obsessed with efficiency?
How about the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the people who work for it, the people who engage with it, the people it governs? It is tempting to say that the government simply needs to get more efficient at doing this, but to improve efficiency you need to measure things. Businesses measure the bottom line. Easy. What measures should be used to judge our well-being? It’s true that you can create some stand-in measures (satisfaction with government etc) but anyone who has filled out a questionnaire knows that often the questions don’t suit them and so they can’t give meaninful answers. The measurement of the general well-being of 60 million people is not just an inexact science, it would be bad science (in scientific language it would mean attempting to make controlled measurements in a system with a near-infinite number of variables, many of which you will never identify or be able to take into account).
So rather than attempting to measure everything and so make government more ‘efficient’, perhaps it makes more sense to choose what we value, and use our values to create the society we want. Values like: improving quality of life, genuine control over our own lives, the importance of the human touch, financial stability as a requirement for a good life, the importance of a stable place to call home, the need for understanding between people whenever and however they interact. If we can create a culture saturated with such values, the measurement of ‘outcomes’ would often turn out to be besides the point – it would be about imbuing everyday processes and decisions with these values. A society is a complex thing and cannot be measured as a series of outcomes. It is an ongoing process, and since there is no end goal, what matters is how we get there.
We all want our paperwork to be processed more quickly, and we all want the money we pay in taxes to go further, so it seems like common sense to say that governments should be more efficient. But the government does a bit more than processing paperwork, and the effects of its spending can’t be reduced to a bottom line, so perhaps they should think about efficiency as one among many goals – many of them, dare we say it, a lot more important than mere efficiency.