It sometimes seems as though all three parties in the UK have been siezed by an ideology we could call the Cult of Efficiency, or the Cult of the Business Method. They believe that the ‘efficient’ practices of business will solve all the organisational problems of government. No one ever challenges them on this dogma, but is it really the case?
We have seen that Lord Browne may not exactly be a master of efficiency, but business efficiency anyway has a particular meaning. You have a bottom line. You want to increase it. Any ‘efficiency’ that increases it is considered to be a good thing, because the bottom line is all that matters.
The key thing to note is that business efficiency – as many people will know from their own experience – often comes down to reducing wages (socially destructive by increasing inequality), ignoring human suffering (destructive to individuals), offloading certain problems onto other people (environmental destruction) and the drive towards monopoly (destructive, hilariously, of the choice that business is supposed to promote).
This business-like ‘efficiency’ is held up as the model by which governments should now operate and Lord Browne neatly embodies it in one person. Of course the politicians would see this as a very negative account of business practices and would point to all the nice things companies make and do for us. And if all you are concerned about is the end product, then it’s true these businesses get good results, although we’ll all have noted that they often seem more concerned with the results for themselves than for their consumers.
The Cult of Efficiency in government acts as though there is an end result – a perfect world – and all we need to do is find the most efficient way to get there. Becoming more ‘business-like’ is thus presented as the holy grail of good government, and so Lord Browne gets put in charge. But society is not a product, and it is not just a way to produce income, it is a complex set of processes that never reaches an end. Unlike a business, how we do things matters even more than where we are going.
We’ve written more on what’s wrong with efficiency here to explain why what appears to be an obvious good can be somewhat problematic.
But even if efficiency were a great thing, having examined Lord Browne’s record, his utility to the government is not immediately obvious. What Lord Browne does do, as a well-known cost-cutter, is support the government’s agenda of reducing the tax burden on corporations and the rich. Rich people like…most of the members of the Cabinet. They claim all the cuts are necessary of course, but more on that here.
Meanwhile are we supposed not to notice the effects of the cuts Lord Browne made at BP, and shouldn’t we ask whether he might not be equally destructive in government? We are always assured that however much the government might be cutting government spending, they care deeply about the good of society as a whole. The tale of Lord Browne tells a different story.