This week I'm talking about the first law of thermodynamics, rabbits, asses, bureaucracy and the road to hell - all of which are unexpected features of the Localism Bill.
The first law of thermodynamics is the law of the conservation of energy. It basically means that the total amount of energy never disappears - it simply emerges in a different form. For example, an object at rest has potential energy, which converts to kinetic energy when it moves. Some of you have just checked the front of this publication to check you are reading Third Sector and not New Scientist.
I was reminded of the first law of thermodynamics while thinking about the Localism Bill, currently at committee stage in the House of Commons. If enacted, this bill would provide a number of new rights to 'empower' local citizens. From a voluntary sector perspective, one of the key features is the 'right to challenge', which allows local charities and other groups the chance to express an interest in running a service that they feel they could provide better.
Isn't this a reasonable proposition - if charities think they can run things better, then they can? But it's not quite like that. What the bill actually says is that if you challenge to deliver a service, the local authority will have to put it out to tender - and then your local, under-resourced charity gets to compete against the might of the private sector for the work. I wonder who'll win that fight?
I'm also betting this will screw up the ability of Lord Hodgson's Big Society Deregulation Taskforce to achieve its objective of reducing the bureaucratic burden on charities. And we can say a cheery toodle-pip to the government's one in, one out promise on new regulations: this bill alone contains no fewer than 207 clauses. As readers will know, clauses in bills are a bit like rabbits: they give birth to myriad offspring in the form of sub-clauses, regulations and guidelines.
This right to challenge is also going to scare the living daylights out of local authorities. I foresee a slew of unscrupulous groups making vexatious challenges because they sniff an opportunity to make money or damage a competitor. So local authorities are inevitably going to ensure they have covered All Scenarios and Situations (in other words, their Ass) to justify and defend their decision-making. Which means lots of luvverly red tape to negotiate while you tender, when you get the contract and when you're reporting about it.
I call this the First Law of the Conservation of Bureaucracy. That is, bureaucracy never dissipates - it just gets displaced and recreated elsewhere.
Is this government, like its predecessors, trying to make things better for its citizens? Probably. Sadly, however, I often find myself reminded of the saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".
- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change