In Praise of Waste

Henry Coleman makes the case for investing in preparation and contingency planning. 

A few years ago, in a little Norfolk village, a parish councillor was accused of taking home a pizza oven from a shuttered community café project. One thing led to another, and eventually, during a parish council meeting, the budding chef was picked up in his chair and forcibly carried out into the car park by some bitter rivals. One possible conclusion is that Norfolk can be a very strange place, but another lesson is that people’s instinctual reaction to governments on any scale wasting their money is angry, visceral, and violent – although usually not in such a literal way. When blame can attach to a single figure, it does so with vigour; witness the dark mutterings about selling gold which still dog Gordon Brown’s name. And so, over the past 25 years, the British state has grown allergic to any accusations of profligacy, and it has developed a whole new model of governing to escape them.

Think of it as a just-in-time delivery system, for the tasks of the state. The manufacturing method pioneered by Toyota dictates that a factory holds no inventory whatsoever, but instead gets new materials exactly as it needs them to make a given product. The British state since Thatcher, similarly, has stripped back much of the capacity it built up over the twentieth century, instead getting commercial operators to guarantee that the state can deploy them whenever it has to meet a particular need. Take private finance initiatives for hospitals, for example; rather than the government either building hospitals or leaving the private sector to do it, the just-in-time model dictated they should pass on to contractors the cost and responsibility of construction, as well as the resource of owning the property, and simply get the use out of it for a fixed rate when it was needed. Cameron’s Big Society was a rebranded counterpart to this, this time relying on voluntary organisations like food banks to deliver services, while the state stepped back to coordinate from on high. This is a world away from either the towering, inefficient institutions of the postwar consensus or the grand privatisations of the 1980s. It’s a view of the state as a giant resource optimisation mechanism, a conductor devoted to ensuring not a penny is misplaced.

But what we have learned is that sometimes you need waste; the leanest possible state is one serving for the best possible times, and any preparation beyond that will inevitably be the first target for efficiency savings. It is hard to be part of this impressive allocation of resources to needs when the goal you’re pursuing is never to be needed. Ironically, the coordination effort worked rather well with the institution expected to face the full force of this emergency: the National Health Service. But the problem was that the state had to devote all of its attention and resources to keeping it clinging on, falling back on its indispensable bedrock powers of mass mobilisation through the military and money creation through the Bank of England, and leaving every other service around it to collapse – most tragically the fragile social care system.

The post-Covid state, reckoning with these failures and with the inefficiencies of a global turn to protectionism, will surely have to back away from this model of provision. In spite of this, there is no clear understanding of the way forward from the just-in-time state from the people in charge of our current one. The vision of Dominic Cummings, for example, is based around using data to coordinate more effectively – adapting quicker, but starting from exactly the same base. It’s revealing on this point that his civil service reform drive began by hiring McKinsey, a company with a quasi-mystical devotion to the pursuit of perfect leanness. This is its own form of hubris. The great lesson of government waste is that humans aren’t perfect; the great lesson of its efficiency drives are that human institutions aren’t, either.

Henry Coleman is a student who is about to commence an MSc in Global Politics at LSE.

He tweets at @owlsanctuarist

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