Open policy needs people to step outside of institutions to tell the truth

Christopher Hitchens used to evaluate the credibility of any person or organisation by their willingness to cite ‘evidence against interests’, that is, to acknowledge facts that are contrary to their own position. It’s a good test – and one that many policymakers, commentators and think tanks would fail regularly. With this in mind, we should challenge our own view that social policy would be better if it was informed by the people who use and provide public services – after all, doesn’t the Hillsborough cover-up show that we can’t trust bodies such as the police not to put their own interests before the public interest?

We’ve argued previously against the view, promoted in particular by right-wing think tanks and commentators but implicitly taken up by much of thinktankland, that public sector workers and ‘user groups’ need to be largely ignored in policy development because they are inevitably self-interested and self-serving. Our view is that social policy would be better if it was informed by the expertise, experience and insight from the frontline.

In the case of Hillsborough, as the publication last week of the report of the Independent Panel confirmed, the police engaged in an extensive and coordinated cover-up of the truth. This went all the way to the top of the South Yorkshire Police. Chief Constable Peter Wright authorised the alteration of police statements to delete words like ‘chaos’, ‘fear’, and ‘confusion’ in criticism of the police operation, in order to enable the police and others to blame Liverpool supporters for the disaster. 164 police statements were altered in the wake of the disaster, and 116 of these received substantial changes to remove comments “unhelpful to the force’s case.”

The coroner also took blood alcohol levels from all of the deceased, including children, to try to draw a link between the late arrival of fans and heavy drinking. Perhaps most sickeningly of all, police officers carried out computer checks on those who had died in an attempt to impugn their reputations. As one comment on the Liverpool Echo‘s website asked last week: “How could such a cover up have happened? So many different authorities getting away with lies. And to get away with it for so long is simply astonishing. They must know the hurt and the pain that they have caused for so long. And still they continued to hide behind the lies, carrying on with their own lives and careers.”

This type of behaviour is not confined to the police of course. NHS staff have abused and neglected patients, and hospitals have tried to cover it up and threaten whistle blowers. Charities have mistreated and ignored the vulnerable adults and children they claim to care for. Public sector trade unions have bullied their own members and failed to represent their real views and interests; they have also stopped managers from dealing with poorly performing employees or from improving services for the public. Given this, why should we listen to the people who provide services? Won’t they always represent their own interests first?

The problem is institutions, not individuals. There will always be some people who act badly and harm others, including inevitably in public services. But only badly led and managed organisations can effectively legitimize such behaviour and try to silence those who challenge it. When we argue that the people who provide public services should have a greater role in policy, we don’t mean a stronger role for those organisations such as large charities or trade unions that can already promote their views to policymakers, rather we’re talking about the individuals on the frontline who are ignored not only by policymakers but also sometimes by the organisations that claim to represent them.

Could the Hillsborough cover-up ever happen again? Some columnists have suggested that the ‘forensic transparency’ now offered by mobile phones and Twitter would make it much more difficult and that there is a danger of over-reacting to scandals such as the Hillsborough cover-up by not trusting any public institutions. But the best mainstream media article of the week for me was by Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph, who recognised the broader implications:

“Over the years, the police have been one British institution that has proudly stood comparison with the very best in the world: unarmed (though less so than they used to be), impartial, independent and largely incorruptible. Perhaps that was always a naive caricature; but it was a view so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that we were unwilling to give credence to powerful evidence that suggested otherwise. However, it was not only the police who let down the Hillsborough families: the very institutions that most of us trust to get to the bottom of things – the courts, the media and Parliament – were all culpable.”

This is perhaps a rather middle class view – many working class communities have always had a less trusting view of the police – but it’s a strange week when the Guardian tells us to ‘go easy’ on the establishment and the Telegraph reminds us to be ever-watchful of those in power.

Surely the Hillsborough cover-up demonstrates that policy can’t be left to the establishment – that arrogance and remoteness breeds bad policy and leads to tragedy (as Daniel Taylor argued in the Observer yesterday). It reinforces the importance of the individuals who provide public services having a much greater voice in policy, so that they can speak freely and honestly outside of institutional interests and constraints.

Perhaps what’s most frightening about institutional power is not its ability to make evil decisions but its collective capacity for ignorance regarding of the effects of those decisions. The answer to the question from the commentator on the Liverpool Echo site is that such ignorance comes most easily to those remain safely distant from the consequences – another reason why we should listen more closely to those at the frontline, both service users and providers, rather than the policy establishment. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of Admin. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see the final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”



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