During an election campaign, a political party will set out it’s vision of how the country will be transformed when they get into power. As you would expect, it’s a positive message, containing the political equivalent of palm trees and sandy beaches. Nobody wants to hear about how they might find it harder to get a job, or have to pay more taxes. The problem with this whole charade is that the vision is usually rather non-committal. It might sound impressive but the use of weasel words ensures that the number of genuine promises being made is surprisingly small.
By the end of the term in office, there is often a significant disparity between what was promised and what was delivered. A memorable recent example is the broken commitment of the Liberal Democrats to scrap university tuition fees, and during the Obama presidency in the US there are many more examples.
In the competitive business environments where many of us work, this sort of behaviour is unacceptable. We all know of someone who found themselves out of a job because they failed to deliver a critical project or manage a department properly.
While it’s good for government to have a vision, it’s less important today because our society has already been built. We are now in the process of incrementally improving it, so the focus should be on delivery and management. Massive changes on the scale of the welfare state and the national health service are almost unheard of.
So why are governments not held accountable to their election manifesto in a formal way? And is it even viable to do so? Running the country is a difficult task and unexpected events take place that could significantly impact the priorities of a government. Would it really be fair to tear apart the Japanese government for failing to deliver on promises when they had to deal with a massive nuclear catastrophe? Also, no government works in isolation – it has to work with other nations and organisations like the EU and the UN.
Clearly, it’s not as simple as creating a checklist from an election manifesto and blindly assessing a government against it without applying some judgement. But even so, is it appropriate to have no accountability whatsoever, to allow manifestos to say things that politicians know have little chance of becoming reality?
I believe a party running for election should include a concrete list of the projects and programmes it intends to deliver. And at the end of the term of office, that list should be independently scored. An overall score should be lenient – given the constraints and shifting priorities faced by any government, delivering even 60% of the original plan is probably a commendable achievement. But over time, the rating should improve.
If shifting priorities mean that new projects and programmes must be started, they should be grouped into a referendum vote because they diverge from what the public originally voted for. Obviously, any emergency measures to deal with natural or humanitarian disasters would have to be exempt from this process.
While it is possible to find web sites that rate presidents and prime ministers on their record against election promises, I want government itself to embrace this rather than leaving it to third parties. They should rate themselves accurately and take pride (or disappointment) in their scorecard.