Rise of the selfish society

August 11, 1995

The erosion of accountability in public life is the result of the creation of a complex network of interdependence rather than simpler bureaucracies, according to a group of social scientists publishing work about the West's absorption with individuality.

Contributor Rod Rhodes, professor of politics at the University of Newcastle, said the splitting up of public bureaucracies in the United Kingdom and the privatisation of tasks formerly carried out by local authorities was eroding long-standing public service values.

"Line bureaucracies are replaced by institutional fragmentation that erodes the capacity to co-ordinate and build consensus," Professor Rhodes says. Fragmentation also eroded accountability.

The new style of public management included hands-off regulation which increased opportunities for "sleaze".

The creation of quasi-markets in health, education and social care further fragmented public bureaucracies.

Membership of the European Union added a new layer of government and yet more complexity.

Co-editors Malcolm Dando of Bradford University and Margaret Blunden of Westminster University draw on the ideas of political philosopher Sir Geoffrey Vickers.

Professor Dando argues that since Sir Geoffrey's death in 1982 his predictions about rising levels of family and community breakup, as well as increasing crime, continue to be fulfilled.

Western cultures tend to view human nature as characterised by goal seeking, and society is seen as a collection of individuals each in pursuit of an endless series of private satisfactions. But the shortcomings of such a conceptual approach - so focused on goals rather than relationships - are clearly in evidence today according to the authors.

At the same time intellectual currents, including aspects of feminism, are extending the concept of the individual. And at another level the ending of the Cold War and the dominance of Conservative governments have greatly reinforced the use of the market as a social and economic regulator.

"To use the market as a regulator of human systems is to import concepts derived from technological and natural systems in to human systems; but human systems, as Vickers early identified, differ from all others in that they have a vital ethical dimension."

The editors believe, however, that there are some signs in the United States and in the UK of a recognition that personal independence and social interdependence are not compatible. Unfortunately conceptual change has been "minuscule and slow".

Rethinking Public Policy Making, edited by Margaret Blunden and Malcolm Dando, Sage, 6 Bonhill St, London EC2.

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