Sound bites vs. quiet reflection: Better Government requires a considered approach

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[First Published on Saturday 1st May 2010]

This archive item is a window onto issues as they appeared at the time. It contains facts and opinions which may have been superseded by subsequent events.

In a letter published in the Financial Times this week, members of The Constitution Society and the Better Government Initiative came up with a compelling, yet remarkable simple, proposition: even without fundamental constitutional change we could enjoy better government.  The letter outlines four straightforward, perhaps even rather obvious ‘principles of good government’, which in essence suggest that a government should think carefully before acting and base legislation on evidence and analysis.

The signatories to the letter are not alone in their concerns; Sir John Baker and Nick Raynsford have both expressed anxiety at the perceived growing tendency of governments to introduce ‘sloppy’ legislation on a rushed timetable in response to media pressure, based on the apparent belief that every issue in the public eye can be dealt with by legislative intervention.  The passing of new laws has become the default response when the ‘public’ (or perhaps only the media) demand that ‘something should be done’.  It is hard to find fault with the reasonable proposition that governments should take time to consider the evidence, consult properly and act only when necessary, but if there is an obvious problem with the principles advanced by the signatories, it is that enforcement of them would depend on a change in behaviour of politicians and in particular a willingness to face down media pressure for rapid visible action.  John Jackson, writing on the Open Democracy website, argues that these desirable standards cannot be achieved without wholesale constitutional change; moreover that such changes ought to be determined by open and public debate, rather than in response to pressure from one group.

In our digital age of rapid communication, 24 hour news coverage, blogs and twitter will any government have the gumption to take time for consideration in preference to the productions of sound bites?

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.