Saturday, 6 February 2016

London, Warsaw, governance.

Capital cities. Where I lived all but four years (while away at university) of my life. Capital cities are the seat of government, head offices, the media - it's where decisions that affect us all get made. Working in close proximity to the corridors of power (16 years in London, 13 in Warsaw), I realise how complex the business of government is. And the dangers of getting the detail wrong, and the dangers of not taking difficult decisions, and the danger of missing the Big Picture.

Power is wielded by insiders; outsiders win elections and quickly become insiders. Treading the stairs of the Palace of Westminster last night, I was minded of the decisions taken within this very building, decisions that literally touched the lives of billions of human beings.

The Head must take precedence over the Heart when considering policy issues that affect us all. But the Heart still beats and yearns - and this can be exploited by populist politicians. Some are unscrupulous manipulators of human emotions - some are but loud simpletons.

Engineers have a curiosity as to how things work. Physicists want to know what's inside an atom. I'm interested in how governments and societies work - what pushes us to take choices at the ballot box, and the consequences of those choices. At the detail level - how governments govern, how regulators regulate, and how societies influence them to do as they do.

Being close to the inside, I can see what works and what can be improved. Public procurement in Poland, for example, is sub-optimal not because the law is badly worded, but because the people responsible for spending public money are poorly trained. The way to improve the way things work in this regard is to professionalise procurement. Another example - why does it take 129 days on average to get all the permissions needed to start a clinical trial in Poland, while in the UK it only takes 21 days? Answer - because the process in the UK is carried out in parallel (applications are made for all the permissions simultaneously rather than waiting to get one before applying for the next, as happens in Poland).

Outsiders don't see this up close, so populists' talk about 'rigged systems' and 'corruption' resonates with them because they know no better. It is easier to believe that the system can be fixed by changing the people running it (civil servants, administrators, functionaries, what have you) than by focusing hard on problem solving, based on best practice from other countries. And there is much to learn from those states that have managed better.

Of course, Britain has a massive advantage over most countries in the European Union in that it hasn't been invaded in nearly 1,000 years. (Bear in mind that Britain was one of only five EU member states not to have been invaded during WW2. The others being Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Ireland - which all stayed neutral.) Britain was the only one actively at war with Nazi Germany.

So Britain has continuity but it also engages internationally. It actively supports other governments that are keen to listen and learn in shaping better regulations.

The danger facing much of the Western world right now is populism, be it of the right or left. The answer is not tearing down 'the system' but rather to focus on improving regulation and governance. But this does not make headlines. It does not rouse the masses. Consensus and diligent committee work does not play as well as 'strong leadership'.

Poland, as I've written before, has but one word for politics and policy - polityka. This means that commentators mistake ad hominem attacks on politicians they don't like as policy. It also means that matters of individual conscience such as in vitro fertilisation or gay marriage, take precedence over far more important but harder to work out matters such as environmental protection, infrastructure investment or financing healthcare.

Populist politicians do their utmost to strip away complexity from the issues, attempting to persuade voters that the choice they face is simple. In today's interconnected world, choices are far from simple and require detailed analysis from highly trained, non-partisan professionals.

Being in London I can sense that the British government and British electorate can see this.

This time last year:
Białystok: Ipswich of the East 

This time two years ago:
Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mosz

This time three years ago:
Interpreting vs. translating vs. explaining

This time four years ago:
More than just an Iluzjon

This time five years ago:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time eight years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready

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