9.4 Encouraging More Prudent Governance
To encourage more prudent governance, politicians must be held to account for their performance in managing foreseeable risks.
Prudence in governance is about timely action and avoiding unnecessary risk. For example, the article If the next government isn’t diverting resources to investment then it will be giving up on our future refers to the need for early investment to avoid higher costs later. Its author, Simon Wren-Lewis, offered several examples – starting with a dramatic picture of flooding on a river near his home:
“..the harm caused by governments trying to hit arbitrary and unnecessary financial targets by cutting back on public investment. The 2010 Coalition government cut back spending on flood defences sharply, and we see the consequences of that almost every year when we get high levels of rainfall.”
“Flooding in the UK is inevitable, but the scale of damage it inflicts is not. Climate change is inevitable, but its extent and [the] destruction it creates is not. At some point another pandemic is bound to happen, but how much illness and death it causes is a choice society makes. To have any hope of making the right choices requires cooperation within and between societies with governments taking the lead in investing today. It requires a relatively small current sacrifice for a far greater future gain.”
The following list, of aspects of governance where more prudent prudence is needed, includes some that he mentioned:
● Politicians have a duty of care for public services and infrastructure (3.2.3). Deferring maintenance, for example, increases its ultimate cost and degrades people’s lives in the meantime.
● The squeeze on Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) was aimed at forcing people to use private healthcare so that taxpayers would shoulder less of the cost burden. A Nuffield Trust report on austerity’s toll on the NHS before the pandemic referred to the “short-termism driven by austerity”, and noted that “The decision to cut nurse training places in 2011 led to chronic shortages” – yet the politicians responsible denied it in June 2023:
“The Covid-19 public inquiry has been in the news this week, with former Chancellor George Osborne and ex Prime Minister David Cameron denying that austerity policies in the UK before the pandemic weakened how prepared the NHS was for such a crisis.”
● Prudence is needed in managing a country’s budget for tax and government spending, and controlling inflation (3.3.8). There have been many recent examples of irresponsibility, but politicians often escape criticism because of voters’ short memories and the complexity of economics (22.214.171.124).
● Better regulation is needed, to reduce financial instability and lessen the risk of another serious recession (3.5.5).
● Politicians should act to minimise the damage from impending climate change. Considerable investment is required, especially to reduce carbon emissions to ‘net zero’ (3.5.7), and this will reduce energy costs and benefit economic growth. Many of the necessary decisions are in the hands of politicians (6.7.5) – and populist politicians are fomenting popular concern about the short-term costs, as described in an article The global backlash against climate policies has begun:
“In rich democracies, especially, divisions over climate are aggravated by populist politicians, who take real problems (such as cost and disruption) and exaggerate them, while claiming that the elite who impose green policies don’t care about ordinary motorists because they cycle to work.”
● New technologies represent both a risk and an opportunity, as noted in an EU article: Artificial intelligence: threats and opportunities. The article mentions opportunities for economic growth but states that it also presents “threats for security, democracy, businesses and jobs”. Elon Musk has asserted that AI could pose existential risk if it becomes ‘anti-human’.
In all the above aspects of governance, politicians have or had the option of being more or less prudent in their decisions. The public cannot judge their actions, though, without adequate information and analysis – which is the role of the media in politics (6.4.3). Politicians can be held to account for lack of prudence if their performance is explained to the public, as described earlier (6.8.5).