Whatever a democratic constitution may say in detail: In my opinion the Head of State in a democratic country is responsible to build effective systems and organizations for policy making and delivery. That is why we elect him or her. The fate of a nation, the state of infrastructure, of health systems, of schools, even peace and war and the life of people depend on the ability of a Head of State to take the lead in building effective policy making organizations.
But who tells a Head of State which methods exist and which ones are the best ones to build effective organizations, organizations which fulfill their purpose without wasting tax money?
A builder has his methods to measure whether a wall is level or not, a teacher has her methods to get a certain subject across to her students, a butcher has his methods to skin, let us say, a cow, a structural engineer has his methods to calculate the stability of a building. But what methods does a Head of Government have to build effective systems to serve a country and its people? Who tells the Head of Government about these methods?
We could argue a Head of State should know those required methods, just as a teacher knows their teaching methods. But in reality, our Heads of Government do have all kinds of professional backgrounds. Knowledge in methods on how to build effective organizations is usually not part of their qualification.
Just a couple of hours ago I had the exceptional opportunity to talk to a very high-ranking politician in a European country about this subject. I tried to convince him that the Cabinet Office, the office for co-coordinating the work of all government departments in that country, needed a know-how system to inform the Head of Government and best also the ministers about how to build the most effective organizations in designing and delivering public policy measures.
The conversation surprisingly lasted quite a while. But he, a full-blooded, long-time politician was completely convinced that the existing systems and organizations in policy making in that country were perhaps not perfect, but still rather good, and if they did not perform well enough, there were already plenty of institutions and processes both in the political and public spheres in place to correct any malfunctioning. Those were institutions and processes such as the national audit office, scrutiny by the media, or protests by citizens with concerns over a policy issue.
What we do not know, however, is how effective those processes and organizations are, whether they check in fact all policy making areas, how timely their work is, and which influence they have in establishing more effective policy making processes. The press as one means of control will generally get only involved in high-profile issues with a “story” value. Furthermore, as any professional person knows: Correcting mistakes which somebody made who did not (quite) know what they were doing, most often is a tedious and inefficient exercise. Sometimes people in charge rather decide to start over from scratch. Better to make sure from the beginning that things are done right, especially in the public arena where millions of public funds are at stake and where the well-being or even the life of citizens might depend on the effective design and implementation of public policy.
Heads of Governments need to know which methods exist for building effective systems and especially which ones are the best methods. They are not only responsible for the work of government departments and hundreds of thousands of and public employees, but also for the effects of policy making on millions of citizens. Heads of Governments are also responsible for building effective international institutions which have to tackle the complex and urgent problems our globe is facing. If our institutions are so effective, how come that carpets of plastic garbage the size of the middle of Europe are floating on our oceans? Is there no chance to stop this pollution? Or have we simply not tried well enough?
Even if we ask: “Who tells a head of government…”, we must realize that the knowledge on building effective organizations and systems is vast and may change. An individual person, or two, or three, are unlikely to have the best and up to date knowledge, on what the best methods to build effective public policy systems are. They might come from the same school of thinking, have a certain preference for one or the other approach, they might be lopsided in their judgment. That is why we need to build a truly effective system to inform the Head of State and his or her ministers on the best methods to build effective policy making and delivery systems. In addition, we need a system to check, whether previous Heads of Governments and ministers did their jobs properly, whether they have built truly effective institutions. From the perspective of politicians in the UK today that doesn’t appear to be so in the case of the EU.
Of course a Head of Government and his or her ministers do not only need to know what the best approaches to building effective systems are, they moreover must apply them. One reason keeping them from applying best practices may be that they are corrupt. That is where the relevance of an effective citizen control institution, suggested in other places in this blog, comes in: Citizens must make sure, first that a system exists to inform Heads of Government and their ministers about best practices, second that those best practices are in fact applied in their policy making work.
Who tells a Head of Government which ones are the best methods to build effective policy making and delivery systems? Unfortunately I did not come up with that question in the conversation with the politician. Would that have convinced him of the need to establish a know-how system to inform government about the best approaches to run a country? Does the question convince you? Let me know what you think.