Friday, November 14, 2014

Does Small Mean Less?: Governing Mallorca

What does small government mean? What indeed does big government mean? I ask the questions because the current Balearic administration was supposed to have been run along small government lines. President Bauzá said so. I ask them also because the UPyD (Unión Progreso y Democracia) has proposed that all town halls with fewer than 20,000 residents should be scrapped.

In its broadest sense, big government refers to bloated administrations often characterised by corruption and almost always by inefficiency. It is a form of government which lacks accountability, spends way too much, does things which smaller bodies could do with greater efficiency and produces limited real benefits to the public. It is also characterised by the dominance of the higher level of government over lower levels to the detriment of decentralised and local administration. Small government is supposed, therefore, to counteract this inefficiency, corruption, lack of accountability, excessive spending, but it doesn't necessarily entail fewer levels of government because it is geared towards decentralisation.

The Bauzá version of small government has so far involved the elimination of a number of government companies and that is pretty much all it has involved. Despite this elimination, cuts to services and to jobs, the regional government budget will increase next year to a level higher than in the first year of the Bauzá administration. So, it is hard to see how Bauzá has followed through with his promise.

He has, however, wanted to or at least intimated that he would like to trim down responsibilities and to reduce the cost of the regional parliament. He suggested that the Council of Mallorca should become no more than an advisory body, a proposal which got short shrift from the president of the Council, Maria Salom. He wishes to cut the number of deputies in the parliament by sixteen from the current fifty-nine. But eliminating these deputies would only be a cost-cutting exercise and not one of making government smaller or any more efficient.

There was a good deal of sympathy for Bauzá's proposal regarding the Council. It has long been seen as a source of duplication and over-spend and as unnecessary. There may also be some sympathy for what the UPyD is proposing. Of Mallorca's fifty-three municipalities, only six would retain town halls, and so there would be an enormous cost-saving. But scrapping all these town halls would mean some organisation taking on their responsibilities, in all likelihood the Council of Mallorca, which is already poised in any event to take some from the smaller towns. The Council would thus become very much bigger than it already is, while getting rid of the town halls would be contradictory to a principle of small government. Likewise, Bauzá's proposal also contradicted this principle in that the Council's existence conforms to a small-government notion of downward delegation.

The town halls will be losing a whole load of paid councillors from next year under national reform of local government, but as with the idea to cut the number of parliamentary deputies, this doesn't mean smaller government. The UPyD would clearly seem to think that getting rid of town halls altogether would do, but
the chances of the overwhelming majority of Mallorca's town halls being eliminated must be put at slightly less than zero. Sympathy there may be in terms of eradicating costs, but sympathy there would not be because of all the psychological and social baggage attached to small-town identity, of which the town hall is the epitome. This said, it is undeniable that the island's smaller towns can be and generally are inefficient in cost terms purely because costs of services for smaller populations are proportionally that much higher than in larger municipalities.

It might be said that because of the system of downward delegation small government already exists in Mallorca, but to suggest that it has acted as a buffer against corruption, lack of accountability and inefficiency would be a long way wide of the mark. As we are all too well aware, corruption has occurred at all levels of government - regional, Council and town halls. It can't act as a buffer if there is a culture of corruption, and it is questionable whether any form of government could ultimately tackle this.

The discussion about small government really revolves around the issue of cost. What Bauzá and, one suspects, the centrist, free-market liberal UPyD would like is far more privatisation. Of the two biggies of regional spend - health and education - it has been suggested that the government's policies have been designed to drive the public into the arms of the private sector, be this private health or private schools. As a philosophy of government, this is one for which there will be limited sympathy, but were there to be that much more contracting-out, would this mean less corruption? One suspects it might mean the opposite. 

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