On Libya and institutions

“We want institutions”. Thus read, Lord Malloch Brown told the Today program, a line of graffiti in downtown Benghazi. The report was treated with a bit of levity and it’s true that as rallying cries go it is not, perhaps, the most inspirational. Nevertheless it should remind us of something important, even if, as Newsnight  later reported, the graffito actually read ‘Constitutional rule, elected president,  4 year non-renewable term limits’.

The lack of institutions in Libya is no accident. Gaddafi systemically dismantled or devalued them in order to centralise power upon himself. Sadly Libya is not unique in this regard. When you do not have strong effective institutions, power disseminates instead through patronage, rent seeking and graft. Institutions are essential components of good governance and the rule of law.

Yet in Britain we are suffering a crisis in confidence in our institutions. In part this is a short term impact of scandals such as MP’s expenses and phone hacking which have shaken many people’s faith in the police, the press and parliament.  Yet there is also a more general anti-institutional element in our political discourse. We see this in the rhetoric around the Big Society which privileges community self-organisation over institutional delivery and we see it in a constant media stream of outraged articles about local authority and Quango pay. Institutions, it is implied are bloated and self-indulgent sinecures which even if not actually corrupt offer little additional value to the put upon citizen.

And of course there is a grain of truth behind this. We know that institutions can take on a momentum of their own, becoming bloated and bureaucratic, generating group think whilst losing focus on their objectives. We also know that institutions are very bad at solving certain types of problem. Typically, they do not capture cognitive diversity or drive innovation. But at the same time we know that institutions are vital for some other equally important tasks. They make things happen. They allow innovation to be applied and scaled up. Crucially, and we see the tragic absence of this in Libya, they provide a mechanism that converts private endeavour into public interest.

So we should value our institutions more, but this is not an argument about the size of the state or a defence of the status quo. In a complex work in which we need innovative public policy solutions and a greater interaction between citizen and state we also need institutions that are fit for purpose: which are focused less on delivery and more on nurturing and harnessing social and intellectual capital within the wider community.  That requires reform but organisational change is difficult. If it wasn’t the bookshelves of the business section would be lighter and McKinsey’s profits weaker.

For politicians, there’s always a temptation to skip the hard work of institutional reform and to work around institutions or set up new initiatives (the new community organisers may be an example of this?), but this ‘project proliferation’ only exacerbates the problem  in the long run

So as we watch the people of Libya struggling to establish the institutions they lack, it should renew our resolve, not to complacently celebrate the institutions we have, but to roll up our sleeves and get on with the hard task of transforming them into the institutions we need.