The greasy gravy train of lobbyism
02 December 2008
In a saner world, the news that government-appointed bodies are now paying millions to communicate with the Government which appointed them, and are employing former government employees to do so would cause surprise, perhaps even outrage. Today, the idiocy and graft at work within the system barely merits a second glance.
Here is the way the self-propelling gravy train of lobbyism runs. A state-funded quango wishes to represent its case, usually a request for more money, to a government department. In order to do so, it hires a consultancy firm with specialist knowledge and a full book of useful contacts. Many of these companies, according to a report, are run by those who until recently had been working at a senior level in government. So for example Weber Shandwick, an outfit run by Colin Byrne, former chief press officer to the Labour Party, now works on behalf of the Crown Estate, the British Museum and others. John Prescott’s former adviser Mike Craven is co-founder of a PR firm which works for the Heritage Lottery Fund. The list of government spinners and advisers who are now enjoying the fruits of the enterprise culture is a long one.
This type of legalised, officially sanctioned insider-dealing represents, in a particularly putrid form, one of the great social changes of the past five years. The heritage of the Blair and Brown administrations has been a dense network of agencies, support programmes and advisory bodies which were set up to dispense guidance and funds from central government. Each is committed to various worthy social policies – sustainability, equal opportunity, regeneration, diversity and so on – and has developed its own procedures and rules.
But the more complicated that the system has become, with its vocabulary and coded phrases, the more it has fed on itself, becoming a vast, bloated bureaucracy. The once-noble aims have been lost in confusion, but a whole professional sector has developed and grown rich upon it. Lobbyists and spinners who used their political careers as a stepping-stone to private advancement are its aristocracy, but below them is a vast army of consultants, publicists, advisers and strategists – people who can explain the ways of government, or rather “interpret current funding and policy trends”, to the outside world.
These experts understand the code of policies and directives, how to gain access to funding, which words and phrases will gain a positive response, how – to use an over-used but unavoidable phrase – to “tick the right boxes”.
They are the future. A university careers adviser 20 years ago would have pushed his brighter, more ruthlessly ambitious students in the direction of the City; today, the advice would be to join the world of PR and consultancy, to become one of those people who understand how the big bureaucracy works and how best to take advantage of it.
No wonder there is a profound cynicism about the way government works. The system is now so confused, the language employed so obscure and coded, that only those working in the public sector truly understand it. Jargon is everywhere, simultaneously patronising and confusing those who are outside the public sector bubble and are unable to untangle the newspeak of 2008.
One thing is clear, even without the help of consultants or advisers. A bureaucracy, borne of spin and good intentions, has become unwieldy and dangerously self-serving.