Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: decentralisation

The Devolution of Blame

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not blaming Devolution, what I want to talk about is the opposite problem.

Emilie Whitaker coined the term “blame devolution” to describe, I think, the way in which bureaucracies or other hierarchical systems seek to devolve blame to the point of least resistance. For example, ‘Let’s blame the social worker.’

This fact corresponds to the principle outlined by my Greek grandfather-in-law, Petros Protopapadakis: The fish always rots from the head down. In other words, in any system, the likely point of responsibility for any failure will lie with its leadership.

There is a dreadful paradox which plays out behind these two truths: The centre tends to exploit the periphery, and so we grow to mistrust the periphery and try to push power and accountability to the centre. But we can end up with the worst of all possible worlds – more centralisation, giving the centre more power to abuse its power.

A better framework for dealing with such abuses is constitutional or legal. We must have rights to protect us form the abuse of power. And any necessary powers must be located with those who are best able to meet those rights. (This sometimes means central power, sometimes local and sometimes just personal freedom).

We must be on guard against the policy soundbite – the lazy assumption that decentralisation always means better. But at the same time we must also ensure that power and control are properly devolved outwards, as far away from the centre as is possible, and in a way that is consistent with our secure rights.

The Limits of Centralisation

Centralisation imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business… in short it excels in prevention, but not in action. Its forces desert it when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the cooperation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed…

These are not conditions upon which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait and responsible for its acts, or (such is the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator than a dependent actor in schemes with which he is unacquainted.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America

I love ‘free in its gait and responsible for its acts’. Politicians tell us they want our participation, our citizenship and our contribution. But one feels that they only want us to get involved on their terms – not when we’re ready – but when they’re ready.

Citizenship must be rooted in local experiences of active engagement. We cannot be expected to spring into action only when our masters decide they are ready for us.

The fact that the UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world should give us all cause for concern.

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