Government by bribery

It's a sign that politics is bankrupt when the government pays the public to comply with its policies.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

There is much concern today about people bribing politicians, by slipping cash for parliamentary questions or wining and dining for political influence. But what about politicians bribing the public?

Bribery is becoming a routine part of government policymaking. From health to education policy, employment to science policy, many government initiatives today come with some kind of backhander.

Take the recent government initiatives aiming to reduce incapacity benefit (at present over 2.7million people claim to be too sick to work, which costs the public purse over £12.5billion a year). It’s clearly a problem that so many people think they are ill, but what do ministers do? According to reports at the weekend, doctors will be offered bonuses if they cut back on sicknotes; and ministers have also talked to the insurance industry about offering cut-rate premiums for firms with low levels of long-term absence (1).

This shows the vacuity of today’s policymaking. Rather than try to win people over to its policies, the government merely designs an elaborate series of incentives to encourage them to behave differently.

The brown envelopes are especially evident for policies dealing with young people. The government is reportedly offering bonuses to teenage parents if they turn up to the requisite number of parenting classes. One pilot scheme is paying 18- and 19-year-olds to volunteer for good causes (they will be paid £45 per week, and a lump sum of £750 if they complete a nine-month course). Whether this qualifies as ‘volunteering’ is debatable.

The Department for Education and Skills is offering between £10 and £30 a week for pupils to stay on after GCSEs, so long as you ‘turn up to your classes and show commitment to your course’ (2). This includes an additional series of lump payments throughout the year – £100 in January, July and September – to urge them on to the next stage. Meanwhile, the government has thrown cash at everything from discipline problems to teacher shortages. Officials proposed cash incentives to encourage headteachers to take their ‘fair share’ of disruptive pupils; and they responded to the shortfall of teachers in subjects such as science and maths by offering ‘golden hellos’ worth several grand to new teachers.

Small wonder that many schools are developing their own bonus system. One City Academy in Bristol offered cash for exam success; a Manchester secondary school offered pupils points for attendance, which they could trade for rewards such as driving lessons or a game of pool at break-time; secondary school pupils in Glasgow were offered a chance to win iPods and theatre tickets if they ate healthy food.

Payoffs are also rife in attempts to combat voter apathy. The New Labour-friendly think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), proposed last year that the government create a state ‘loyalty card’: citizens could collect points for activities such as voting and community service, which they could convert into rewards such as cheaper council tax (3). Other attempts at bribery are slightly more subtle. One of Labour’s stunts at the 2001 General Election involved sending students a text reading: ‘Cldnt give a XXXX 4 lst ordrs? Vote Labour 4 extra time’.

At a broader level, government league tables – which now exist for everything from prisons to hospitals to rail companies – are a more elaborate incentive system. Organisations are measured by a series of benchmarks, and those who fall short are threatened with public humiliation or a cut in public funds.

Of course, money has always been part of the business of politics. Powerful interest groups were often brought around to policy changes. The architect of the National Health Service (NHS), Labour health minister Nye Bevan, famously described how he won doctors over to the idea: ‘I stuffed their mouths with gold.’ The welfare state itself was a way of binding people into society through public handouts. And elections have often been rife with different political parties buying off local interest groups, including union officials, business leaders and ethnic community leaders.

However, today’s payoffs are peculiarly individualised and vacuous. Handouts in the past often involved different interest groups jostling for position, and decisions about the distribution of resources in society. Occasionally, as with the notion of the welfare state, payments came with a vision of the good society, in which everybody was cared for ‘from cradle to grave’.

Now incentives are a tip from state to citizen, an exchange of pounds and pence for civic performance. These bonuses are about micromanaging society rather than building it anew. The government is merely concerned with ensuring the compliance of doctors, teachers and voters with its latest initiative.

This involves a narrow notion of what makes people tick. Apparently we’re all driven by our personal savings accounts and desire for perks. Politicians have given up on making moral or political arguments for policies, trying to win people over to a particular approach. Instead they create an elaborate structure of incentives, as if we were merely racing dogs chasing decoys.

There is a reason for this. Previous forms of ideological incentive have lost their force: the government can’t invoke the work ethic to encourage malingerers back to the payroll, because nobody believes in it anymore. The public service ethos no longer inspires train drivers and nurses, and teachers and pupils alike are often unable to see the point of education. Meanwhile, institutional recognition of good work – from school prizes to exam results to knighthoods – often aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

The government’s response to this problem is to give in to it. Every issue is brought down to a quid pro quo: points for complying with this policy, pounds for complying with that one. This is about getting people to play their allotted part, regardless of their level of commitment. So long as you appear committed – you turn up to the job centre, school, parenting classes or volunteering agency, fill in the right forms and perform the right tasks – that’s apparently all that matters. This is a cynical attempt to paper over the cracks, as if society could be gelled together with pounds and league tables.

As incentives go, this stuff is small change. The welfare state revolutionised people’s lives – including free medical care, unemployment benefit, family allowance, old-age benefits. Compared to that, New Labour is tossing tenners around. This is a bit of extra cash here and there, rather than anything that will make much difference to our lives.

We should knock back the government’s backhanders, and assert that we’re worth more than that.

(1) ‘Doctors set to get bonuses is they cut sicknotes’, Sunday Times, 22 January 2006

(2) What is Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA)?

(3) Points make prizes, Guardian, 5 November 2006

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Topics Politics


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