Lilley’s option for Auckland

Published in Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 27 February 2015

As widely reported this week, Auckland Council’s economic development arm has created a posting for one of its senior executives in London. Costing ratepayers a total of $230,000 over the course of a year, the city’s new ambassador Grant Jenkins is meant to promote better links between Auckland and London.

Perhaps Auckland’s new representative could schedule a meeting with The Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP. Not just because Lilley is a former UK Trade Secretary and one of the longest serving members of the House of Commons. He is also one of the most insightful British politicians to keep company with in London.

What Lilley might tell Jenkins about is a little tool he developed at the beginning of his political career. As Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Environment, he insisted that officials would always include an option in the list of potential courses of action that was typically excluded from such lists.

This often forgotten option then became known as ‘Lilley’s option’. It was simply “to do nothing”. Apparently, the Department of Environment continued to use it for quite a while after Lilley had moved on to new positions.

Reflecting on his life in politics before a House of Commons committee, Lilley much later explained why he had always insisted on including the “do nothing” option routinely.

“I was actually a radical Thatcherite and was in favour of radical action where it was needed but in favour, as a conservative, of not doing anything where nothing needed doing,” Lilley said. “The option of doing nothing is rarely considered when a policy development is going on because the presumption is that something must be done. It may be that doing nothing is less bad than doing something; that should always be considered.”

In the interest of better links between Auckland and London, it would be worth importing Lilley’s option to New Zealand. Before our politicians, both at council and at the national level, commit to any new initiatives, they should always consider the idea of not doing anything.

Had they done so before sending Mr Jenkins off to London, they might have come to the conclusion that New Zealand is represented in the UK by its High Commission. Or that a “one man band” city mission is likely to be ineffective. Or that there are better things that the Council could have done with $230,000.

Knowing Peter personally, I would imagine that might have been his advice, too (but he would probably be too polite to tell Mr Jenkins on their first encounter).

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