The London School of Economics (LSE) has initiated a highly important project for the well-being of society in the UK, now and in the future, a project to design a new UK constitution. The project should be of great relevance for all democracies in the world, since they also suffer from to a larger or smaller degree ineffective policy making systems.
We suggest that the success of the project, ultimately success in ensuring the highest quality of democratic policy making conceivable in the UK, will depend on two key aspects:
- The work of creating an effective constitution must itself be structured in the most effective way possible.
- Establishing a new policy making system is only the first step. It must be followed up by establishing a permanent effective civil society control system over the democratic policy making system.
A Dire State: Society and the World at Risk
Our society and our world of seven billion people are in a dire state. In the UK like in other western countries poverty is on the increase, there is high youth unemployment. We talk about a “Lost Generation” and a “Broken Society”. At the same time, we, as part of humanity as a whole, are overexploiting the resources of our world, we are polluting it. With allowing climate change we are actually even contributing to the destruction of the world, the home of future generations.
Ineffective Policy Making Systems, also in the UK
Our democratic policy making systems do not seem able to cope with these enormously complex problems. While governments cannot even agree on a strategy to limit global warming at 2ᵒ Celsius, scientists are already suggesting that this limit is far too lenient and that we cannot allow any further increase in global temperatures whatsoever. Governments are far too slow in picking this information up. They allow humanity to run towards the precipice of destroying the world without suggesting a comprehensive strategy to stop climate change. Governments including the UK government also allow biogenetics to change the nature of human and animal life without empowering society to control the developments. The UK government like other governments does not stop wealth and income gaps from widening and society to disintegrate, so that observers warn about a continuous decay of society into social instability and chaos[i]. The rise of new and extreme parties and the protest movements in different European countries illustrate the consequences of increasing discontent of society with economic developments. Studies suggest that unemployment and deprivation was a main cause also for the UK riots in 2011.
Reasons for the Ineffectiveness of Our Policy Making Systems
What are the reasons for the incapability of the democratic system also in the UK to deal with the challenges of our time?
Inherent Structural Deficits in the Way We Have Set Up Democracy
First of all deficits in the performance of the UK democracy, as of other democracies as well, appear to be caused by inherent structural deficits in the way we have structured democracy. The key problem is that governments must expect that policies perceived as uncomfortable or a burden by wider society will topple them. They will avoid any necessary but painful measures as long as only possible, even if such delays might seriously damage a society or lead to the destruction of the world, the prospect in the case of global warming. If we want democracy to truly work for the long-term benefits of a society we must establish control mechanisms which disable this inherent destructive mechanism in democracy.
Lack of Leadership?
Political observers like Al Gore and Eric Schmidt from Google put the failure of our systems to manage our modern world to a large extent down to a lack of national and international political leadership. Such lack of leadership will indeed be one cause for the ineffectiveness of our democracies. To some degree it may be connected with the inherent problems discussed above in the way we design democracy. Even great leaders are at least to some degree subject to these mechanisms.
But one reason for a lack of leadership may also be that a society simply gets the leadership it “deserves” or which it establishes. In probably no democracy effective systems are in place to select leaders of the quality society requires, also not in the UK. If we are honest, we realise that we elect our leaders based on an impression of their personality only, rather than on the basis of a clearly defined qualification profile.
Beyond these considerations on the qualities and qualifications to be required from our leaders, a society must recognize that running a nation and the world in the 21st century is an enormously complex task. No single person can have comprehensive and perfect knowledge and capacities to fulfil such a vast responsibility by him- or herself. Rather than hoping for the appearance of a super-hero, a super-leader who solves all of its problems, a society, therefore, needs to have a system in place which ensures that its democratic policy making system works properly.
No Effective Control System
One fundamental problem in our democracies is that we do not have such an effective system in place, a process which fulfils the task of “making our policy making system function effectively”. The main political control system we rely upon is parliamentary control. But the system does not work well, partly not at all.
“Parliamentary control of government expenditure is a myth” and “if it is not a constitutional myth, it is close to one,” stated two parliamentary committees at the beginning of the 1980s and about twenty years later, shortly before the year 2000.[ii] In the year 2000, still a young MP, the present Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, Edward Davey, published a paper on budget scrutiny by parliament in which he fully subscribed to these observations. “In practice, MPs do little more than rubber stamp the Executive’s budget”, Davey himself formulated, putting the ineffectiveness of parliament in examining government expenditures down to a lack of time, resources, and staff support. As further aspects he mentions the lack of expertise of MPs “on entering parliament”, and their lack of independence. They would be aiming for “promotion up the greasy role of party preferment”.[iii]
We can be certain that these deficits will compromise all other control functions of parliament as well, for example the tasks of making sure that policy making in areas such as climate change, international development, or in government control over the finance system are effective.
Within Government: Even Core Policy Making Processes Not Working
As a result of lacking effective control, even fundamental policy making processes in the UK government have not been working properly, for years or possibly decades of policy making. The deficits happen to be discovered by more or less random processes.
In a 2012 inquiry into strategy making in British government the parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) suggested to the Minister of State from the Cabinet Office witnessing on the matter that some observers might consider the strategic aims formulated by the British government at the time “motherhood and apple pie”, i.e. far to general and meaningless. In its final report the Committee concluded:
“We have little confidence that Government policies are informed by a clear, coherent strategic approach, itself informed by a coherent assessment of the public’s aspirations and their perceptions of the national interest. The Cabinet and its committees are made accountable for decisions, but there remains a critical unfulfilled role at the centre of Government in coordinating and reconciling priorities, to ensure that long-term and short-term goals are coherent across departments. Policy decisions are made for short-term reasons, little reflecting the longer-term interests of the nation. This has led to mistakes which are becoming evident in such areas as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (carrier policy), energy (electricity generation and renewables) and climate change…[iv] (We have underlined the most important passages.)
The statement is very clear: A lack of strategic capacity is responsible for the failure of government in many critical areas for society and the globe, including actually the existential issue of Climate Change. Which processes are in place to correct any deficits discovered such as this one, would be a further question to investigate. The author of this article sent a proposal for an improved strategy making system to the Cabinet Office, but never received a reply.
If two core processes in our democratic policy making system such as parliamentary control and strategy making are not working effectively, this is similar to the heart and lung in the human body not working properly. As a consequence the entire policy making system cannot produce the required policies. Due to faulty management and co-ordination at the top of government many other processes in the management of public policy will be ineffective and inefficient as well. It is by no means surprising for example that Sir Philipp Green conducting a review of the government procurement system on behalf of the British government in 2010 stated that government waste was “shocking”. He found that government was squandering billions through lack of management and co-ordination in procurement. After the financial crisis, which cost society many more billions, the fact was revealed that the tripartite control system over the financial sector shared by Treasury, Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority never was designed in an effective fashion.
Deficits like these lead to the waste of public resources in many areas, to the loss of opportunities to create employment or to foster the well-being of society in other respects. Their accumulated effects can contribute to the destabilization of society of which observers warn.
The Need for the Most Effective Democratic Policy Making Systems Conceivable
We might contend against these thoughts that human action will never be “perfect”.
Yet, as we will also agree, a government clearly should have a professional strategy making system in place, and it should also not be wasting billions on procurement. The problems which a nation like the UK and our world of seven billion people are facing are so urgent and so complex that we in fact need the very best tools, we need policy making systems of the highest quality to stand a chance to manage these problems adequately and to preserve society and the world in a healthy state for future generations.
Settling for less than the best tools in managing our public policy issues, settling for less than the best policy making systems could be damaging still to ourselves and would be negligent towards our children and grandchildren, towards future generations who are entitled to receive the world in a good state. The critical question, therefore, is: Are we doing everything to make sure our policy systems are working as optimally as they can?
A “Refurbished” UK Constitution: A First Necessary Step in the Right Direction
If we subscribe to the need for “optimal democratic policy making systems” we recognize that the endeavour to build a new constitution initiated by the London School of Economics is exactly the right step in the required direction. The initiative appears absolutely necessary to ensure the long-term soundness of society and to contribute to the health of the globe.
But for the initiative to lead to success we must take two aspects into consideration: The initiative must be structured in an effective manner to lead to the best policy making system conceivable for the UK, and second, as we shall discuss in more detail below, it is actually only the first of two steps required. We must not only put a highly effective system in place, we also must check and control on an ongoing basis that it in fact operates with the highest degree of effectiveness and efficiency. For a manufacturing company there is no use in only building a highly sophisticated machine. One must also make sure that qualified personnel and adequate resources are in place for the effective operation of the machine and one also must consistently check its performance. If the well-being of sixty million people and the state of the world are at stake, we finally must constantly check for further options arising over time to enhance the effectiveness of our policy making system. The future of a society and of the world may depend on such checks.
Presently the UK constitutional system is a “collection of traditions” which developed over centuries and happen to be combined in a democratic policy making process. One element highlighting the historic background of the present system is the separation of control over government into Parliament and House of Lords without it being really clear what the difference in function between these two houses is. The distinction between the “Lords” and the “Commons” does not make sense anymore in a world built on the paradigm of equality.
Understandably arguments are even being put forward to dissolve the House of Lords altogether. From a systemic perspective this would appear to make sense. A practical guideline in establishing an effective policy making system would be to have one functioning control system over it rather than two systems which do not function adequately (for example in ensuring that government strategy making is effective as discussed above). Last not least two control systems generally cost more than one and in the time of scarce and thoroughly needed public resources no waste can be afforded. Any potential savings by eliminating a redundant control system may be offset, however, by the recognition that the creation of an effective control system will require that we step up the resources we provide for our control system. As mentioned above, parliament presently suffers from a lack of resources as one factor compromising its effectiveness.
To be somewhat provocative one could argue that all in all the present UK constitutional system is like an English vintage car. One might cherish the system and its traditions, but in its present state it is not adequate anymore for the complex policy challenges of our time. In fact most democratic systems in the world suffer from similar or even worse deficits than the UK system. Not only the UK constitutional system needs to be overhauled urgently to match the demands of the world of the 21st century, the policy making systems in most democratic countries do. If the UK manages to set up a highly effective process in designing a tailor-made constitution capable to address the challenges of our time, then this will hopefully have a pollinating effect on other countries as well. Last not least the well-being of the UK society depends also on the long term economic, social, and political stability in other countries, especially of its neighbours in Europe, and also on the effective functioning of their political systems.
Some Principles for Building the Most Effective UK Constitution Conceivable
If we want to build the most effective UK constitution conceivable we probably have to follow a number of principles:
- Structured Approach
Even if it might sound trivial, it will be worthwhile calling a fundamental requirement to mind, the need to identify and apply a structured approach to building a constitution and a democratic policy making system. We must think exactly about what we want to achieve, we must identify the parameters of relevance to our aims, and ensure that they are in place.
- Preserving What Works, Improving What Is Faulty
Many people fear that a process which designs a new Constitution on a drawing board might end up throwing practices over board which have proven their worth over long periods of time. Such concerns appear justified to a certain extent. Agreeing on and installing processes which work for a society of millions of people must be an extremely difficult process. Still, we need the courage to identify deficits in our policy making system which might be critical for the long term stability of society and for the maintenance of the world.
- Only Regulate The Fundamental Principles For A Society
It will probably be a well-established principle in constitutional law to incorporate only a minimum of regulations in a constitution, regulations which are necessary as the foundation for the functioning of society, of the political system, and the well-being of all. Some of those principles will generally be those concerning the dignity of human life, unalienable rights such individual freedom and equity before the law, the Categorical Imperative, the responsibility towards future generations, the role of the state vs. the role of the individual perhaps, and possibly the fundamental principles on the split of powers and responsibility between regional, communal, and the national government. Other issues of a more changing and contemporary nature should probably be addressed in specific laws to be discussed in detail by society. Where the exact dividing line should be, will have to be discussed in more detail. The general aim should indeed be to create a long-term foundation for a stable society.
- Identifying Optimal Methods In Building Effective Systems
A key element of a structured and effective approach to building a new constitution must be to identify the best methods for the very process of building a constitution and effective policy making systems. An architect won’t be able to build a state of the art house, if he or she does not understand the best methods of constructing it. We won’t be able to build an effective constitution, if we do not check which methods might be available, helpful, or even necessary in building an effective constitution. I suggest that one of the methods to be applied should be Systems Thinking. But there may well be other useful methods and approaches as well.
- Clear Goal Identification
As the first step in our concrete work on the project we will have to agree on and specify exactly what we want to and must achieve. Given the complexity of the situation and the urgency of the problems we are facing, I suggest we should define as our goal “to build the most effective UK democratic policy making system conceivable, effective both in terms of maximizing the common good and in terms of maintaining society and the globe in a good and healthy state for future generations”. It is necessary for us to discuss and to agree on the “right” goal, whatever this may be, so we do not waste resources by straying in different directions or do not risk missing the point of our endeavours all together.
- Identifying Parameters Which Affect The Process of Building An Optimal Constitution Itself
Having defined our goal we must check which parameters affect the process of getting there. The key parameters to succeed in the process of building an effective constitution will be: Know-how and resources. We need the optimal know-how to build an optimal constitution. We need a highly effective system and the necessary resources to be able to identify the best know-how.
Another parameter for relevance in building an effective policy making system is independence, no influence by any select interest group in society can be allowed. To safeguard independence the resources for building a new policy making system must be provided by wider society or by clearly “neutral” donors who do not pursue an agenda deviating from the common good.
Crowd-sourcing as practiced in this LSE project on the British Constitution is a key element in establishing the best know-how on methods in building a constitution. It is also important in optimizing the solution for individual issues, such as the question, what the best voting system is or the best control system over government.
In resorting to crow-sourcing we must, however, take into consideration that – as a general guideline – we will only then create the best constitution conceivable, if we collect and assess all know-how available in a society and in the world on a constitutional issue. Our crowd-sourcing process must be designed in such a way that anybody in a society who has relevant know-how has a chance to get involved and to make a contribution. To secure the very best know-how on a constitutional issue the process of crowd-sourcing must be complemented by an effective process to scout all information available in a country and in the world on this particular matter.
- Understanding A Constitution As A System Of Systems
One precondition for optimizing our democratic policy making system is that we understand the policy making system as a “system-of systems”. Each of the subsystems in the democratic policy making system needs to be optimized to ensure the entire system indeed works best.
Among other sub-systems of our overall policy making system we need an effective system to define exactly what the “common good” for our society is, what the role of the state in achieving it is, we need an effective system to identify risks and chances for the common good, a system to determine the priorities the policy system must set, and a system for optimal strategy making on each issue.
The policy system will not work effectively, if any of these sub-systems do not work correctly. The slacker the performance of each sub-system, the worse will the overall policy making system work, the more resources will it waste. A failure of the sub-system for strategy making system will affect the performance of the entire policy making system as we saw. We need to know how to build effective systems for all individual functions and system elements.
No Effective Policy Making System without Permanent Effective Control
If we understand policy making as a system of systems, we become aware that the project Constitution UK initiated by the LSE acts in fact as a system to build an effective British constitution, a system “created by parts of and working on behalf of society”.
But as we said we must not only establish a first class policy making system, we also must consistently check and evaluate whether it fulfils our expectations. We must make sure that it performs with the highest degree of effectiveness and efficiency, we must make sure that the people we elect to operate the system are qualified and play by the rules, and we must make sure that the system has sufficient resources to fulfil its tasks effectively. We also must always check whether there are new and better methods arising to ensure our policy system generates the best possible results.
To achieve these goals society must set up a permanent, effective control system over its democratic policy making system. The future of our society and of the world depends on the existence of such an effective citizen control system in the UK and best in all democratic nations.
How To Set-Up An Effective Control System Over The Policy Making System?
Basically in a democracy every citizen has equal rights and equal obligations. If democracy is government by the people, as one element of the well-known statement by Abraham Lincoln, then this theoretically must mean that all members of society should work together in establishing an effective control system over the policy making system. Such effective control requires know-how, resources, and power. All citizens in a society should join to make sure these parameters are in place. In order to establish effective citizen control over the policy making system in practice, citizens need to join in a control institution “outside” of the democratic policy making system to exert control “over” it.
The graph published in the description of our model illustrates how such a system must ideally work:
Talking about such citizen control over the policy making system we realize, however, that in the end there is no clear dividing line between society and its policy making system. Just like parliament is part of the policy making system, a citizen control system “over” the policy making system can as well be considered to be a part of the policy making system in a wider sense. The policy system and society are closely intertwined. With controlling its policy making system, society is part of it.
Ultimately no system works without effective control by its stakeholders. Democratic society must engage in its policy making system.
Since a democratic policy making system can only work effectively with an effective citizen control institution checking and ensuring its performance, such an element must be incorporated in a constitution as a necessary part of the policy making process. Describing the function and responsibility of society in the policy making process in the constitution is crucial for the effectiveness of the democratic policy making system.
Even if for functional reasons such a civil society control organisation is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of a policy making system, it may not be possible to establish such a control organization carried by the entire population of a nation. This issue needs to be investigated further. Even if democracy is considered to be government by the people, i.e. by all people, human nature, limited capacities, more immediate needs, and limited inclination to engage in the life of a nation and the state of the world might speak against the entire population of a nation getting involved in such an organisation. Whether it is possible or not may depend on the quality of citizenship education in a nation and on the way one organises the institution.
In any case initially at least these people in a society who feel responsible and have the time and capacities to contribute to the future of a nation and of the world must join. They must establish such a necessary control organisation. To start with, the organisation could simply be created as a public policy institute carried by as many citizens as possible. Over time the institution would have to strive to gather more and more support in the wider population. One aim of the organisation must be to foster better citizenship education in society, so that citizens understand their personal responsibility and critical role in making the democratic policy system work.
Of course the proposal for the establishment of a citizen control institution will raise the question, how citizens control in turn control this new, “their own” control organisation over the policy making system. This is in fact a difficult issue in itself, which cannot be discussed in all detail at this point. The design of an optimal solution for this matter should probably be the subject of a crowd-sourcing and research project in itself.
We can, however, already state that citizens will have more effective control over their own control organisation than over government, if they have the authority to cancel their membership and financial subscriptions, should they not be content with the performance of the control organisation. Citizens don’t have such control leverage over government. They must pay their taxes whether they are content with the performance of government or not.
Maybe creating the “perfectly working” control institution is ultimately not possible. There is, with all likelihood, no switch with which we can control the quality of policy making unequivocally.
But society may simply have to understand that having a lever to move a large boulder, even if it is a bad one, is better than not having one at all. Having a control organisation over the policy making system is better than no control organisation. The constant challenge will be to make this control organisation, the control “system” as effective as only possible.
Having such a control organisation certainly has one crucial benefit for society: Since many policy areas are of relevance, partly of crucial importance for the quality of life of citizens, they basically have to control the quality of government policy making in all of these areas. This is not possible for individual citizens, however.
With establishing a control organisation, citizens have someone to control the quality of government policy making in all policy areas on their behalf. Rather than having to control the work of government in many complex policy areas of critical relevance, they themselves must only control one action, the work of the lever, of their control organisation. If we manage to structure the lever in a clear and simple fashion, controlling its work by society will be comparatively simple.
But of course, if this citizens’ organisation recommends a measure to make government more effective, for example a new effective strategy making process in government, the organisation still may need the support of wider civil society, so that the politicians actually implement the required improvements. At present, even if research institutes or consultants may make sensible proposals for improving policy making processes, the government often neglect these proposals or refuses implementing them, especially if proposals might not enhance or even weaken its chances for re-election. But simply a broad membership in the control organisation will give citizens a substantial influence on the quality of policy making.
In his introduction to the project “Constitution UK” Professor Conor Gearty from LSE provocatively states that “the status quo is no longer an option”…we “surely can do better than a bunch of medieval barons managed to pull off in Runnymede in June 1215”.[v]
One must consent. Given the complex challenges and the partly existential risks for the UK and the world existing in the world of today we indeed urgently need a tailor-made democratic policy making system geared for maximum effectiveness and, in as much as only possible, capable to handle these challenges. If we were to make one amendment to the present constitutional system only, it would have to be a fundamental one serving this goal: the introduction of an effective permanent control system by society over the policy making system.
[i] So for example the British-American historian Tony Judt, Ill fares the land, Allen Lane, London, 2010
[ii] Quotes in: Edward Davey, “Making MPs work for our money: reforming Parliament’s Role in Budget scrutiny”, Centre for Reform Paper No. 19, centre for Reform, London, 2000
[iv] House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, Strategic thinking in Government: without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge?, Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010–12
Volume I: Report, together with formal minutes, oral and written evidence, p.3