Don't try to control everything

Matthew Taylor argues that ministers must encourage the public sector to take risks

Welcome to the evaluative state. Shortly before Christmas a white paper set out targets that must be met, both by government departments and by initiatives (such as crime prevention and family support) that cut across departments. Some of these Public Service Agreements (PSAs) are familiar: the manifesto pledges on class sizes and NHS waiting lists, for example. Others are more obscure. These range from the detailed and measurable - the Department for Culture is to ensure that 75 per cent of libraries are linked to the Internet - to the broad and intangible - the first Foreign Office objective is to "build a modern Nato, adapted to the needs of the new millennium".

Alongside them we have the growth in evaluative agencies: the best known is probably Ofsted, which enforces standards in education. Among the new agencies are the Commission for Health Improvement and the Best Value Inspectorates in the Audit Commission. Only last month Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, announced Quest, an agency that will measure value for money in the arts (ministers wisely decided against Ofart).

All this is certainly better than what came before. As Tony Blair wrote in the introduction to the white paper: "Too often in the past, governments have only made commitments for what they put into public services - money, manpower and policies - not what the public will get out in return." The Conservatives did not fundamentally challenge this "input culture"; instead, they privatised, introduced quasi-markets and steadily eroded local control. In contrast to the Tories' anti-state rhetoric, Labour aims to strengthen support for public expenditure by providing citizens with clear evidence of where their money is going and what it is achieving.

But accepting the idea of target-setting is one thing; setting the right targets is another. Doctors have argued that the numbers on waiting lists - which Labour has pledged to reduce - are less important for individual patients than waiting times. The waiting-list target does not tell us whether those in greatest need are being seen first. Again, the target for 50 per cent of pupils to achieve five A-C grades in GCSE gives schools every incentive to concentrate on those of middling ability (so that they get five rather than four A-C grades) but much less reason to bother with those at the lower levels of attainment. The target thus becomes a measure not of school performance but of the head's ability to direct resources ruthlessly to a particular group. Education ministers have now recognised this, and included a target to reduce the number of pupils leaving with no qualifications. But the reality of league tables means that schools will to continue to focus on improving the performance of the middle and top bands.

It is a characteristic of management by target that more and more measures have to be developed to correct the perverse incentives created by earlier ones, rather as the judge in the film What's Up Doc? took so many pills to deal with the side-effects of others that he forgot what was originally wrong with him.

Further, ministers and civil servants, knowing that they will be judged by outcomes, start to take stronger and stronger powers to shape those outcomes. They move further and further "upstream", trying to control the process by which targets are reached. In primary schools, for example, ministers have set targets for literacy and numeracy; now they are dictating time, content and method for these subjects.

And therein lie the dangers. If ministers try to extend their control to process as well as outcome, the scope for public managers, local councillors and public service volunteers to use their own initiative will become ever more circumscribed. Creative minds are hardly going to be attracted to public service by the financial rewards. People need to feel they can lead, respond to local circumstances and make a difference. Yet school governors, for example, find themselves acting as managerial assistants to head teachers, dealing with an ever-growing tide of regulations from the Department for Education and Employment or the town hall.

Labour's commitment to civic engagement and the renewal of communities is an important part of its new ideology. It is an area where the values of traditional liberalism and new social democracy are complementary. But by exerting too much control from the centre Labour risks invalidating its commitment to active citizenship.

What is the answer? In championing the PSAs, Blair and Gordon Brown often speak of "money for modernisation". To this should be added the idea of "freedom for modernisation". As public services deliver on their targets, the reward should be not only more resources but also more autonomy over how targets are pursued. Ministers have already proposed "beacon councils", to be given special freedoms as a reward for meeting best-value targets, and even Ofsted - supposedly the big bad wolf of the evaluative state - is developing "light-touch" inspections for demonstrably successful schools.

Such ideas should be extended. But the government will have to do two things it sometimes finds difficult. First, it will have to resist the temptation to exert ever more detailed central control. The muted response to the idea of targets for the patients' charter being set locally is not a good sign. Second, as a thousand flowers bloom in the public sector, the government will have to be willing to take a hit when local innovators get it wrong or when their methods are viewed as too unconventional by Daily Mail standards.

In its recent white paper on competitiveness, the government argued that a greater tolerance of business failure was the price for encouraging risk-taking. It would be good to see a similar standard applied to the public sector. Who knows: it may convince people that ministers are not control freaks.

Matthew Taylor is the new director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State