Say, What’s The Big Idea?

What is the government for? It is an obvious question – so obvious that the government has not really provided an answer.

Of course the government declaration outlines the general direction of the coalition’s legislative programme.

But what is needed more than this shopping list of policies is what might be called a unifying concept. One key priority needs to be identified and promoted above all others.

Estonia used its adoption of the euro in just such a way – every government policy for the last two years existed only in relation to Estonia’s desire to join the eurozone.

One can argue whether joining the eurozone was actually a good idea, but without doubt it served a useful purpose in providing a focus for government policy. If an Estonian citizen asked “Why are you doing this?” when presented with a spending cut or tax rise, the answer was clear: “So we get the euro.”

He didn’t have to want the euro himself, he just needed a credible explanation, and he got one. “Euro” became the buzzword and the defining concept of the government.

If Latvians ask “Why are you doing this?” about the 2011 budget they get less compelling answers: “To reduce the level of the deficit,” or “To meet the conditions of the international lenders” or “We hope to get a better credit rating.” These are not dynamic or convincing answers, and they need to be improved.

Maybe that is the exact buzzword required: “improvement.”

Everyone – including the government – seems to assume that reducing a budget by (for example) 10 per cent means that all services get 10 per cent worse. This is not necessarily the case.

Why not argue that even though the budget will be smaller, the ultimate purpose is to make the service better? Turn the necessary austerity into a national project to improve efficiency in labour, agriculture, energy consumption, manufacturing and education. Develop a government culture that believes it can do “more with less” – which is precisely what tens of thousands of Latvian residents have already done with their own household budgets.

The brutal truth is that only by getting bigger returns on smaller spending will Latvia ever manage to emerge permanently from the crisis and establish a sustainable economy.

The government needs someone to stand up and champion whatever it chooses as its “big idea.” It doesn’t necessarily need to be Dombrovskis, but someone needs to make sure ministers and the whole apparatus of government adopts, focuses on and talks about genuine improvement instead of the apologetic language of reforms, cuts and powerlessness.

Unless someone stands up for a “big idea,” the usual little squabbles will fill the vacuum. If the government continues to operate without a core concept, people will not hesitate to suggest their own less flattering motives.

Cynics will say the government exists simply to retain power at any cost. Others will see a drift towards the promotion of vested interests or attempts to use government as a useful shield to escape the reach of the law. These ways of thinking are already gaining momentum – and unless the government can offer a credible and catchy alternative they will quickly become dominant.

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