In 2005, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approved a genetically modified variety of potato bred by the German company BASF.
The European Commission decided not to decide. So BASF went to court and won. The commission launched another evaluation. The EFSA once again said the potato was safe. But the Hungarian government complained the EU had based its decision on the first approval, instead of the second virtually identical one. A court agreed.
By this time, eight years had passed and BASF had tired of banging its head against a brick wall. It withdrew its application, packed up its research team and moved them to America.
Instead of raging against the machine, we shrug and treat these delays like the weather; we dare not grumble for fear of incurring a further bureaucratic sulk. The trouble is, delay costs civil servants nothing. Indeed, it brings advantages. Not taking a decision increases the chances that you’ll be promoted or moved so the blame for the decision – if it proves unpopular – falls on your successor.
Plus the delay enables them to argue they are overworked and under-resourced, so need a bigger budget. This is known as public choice theory.
The Highways Agency is planning a road-widening scheme through a sliver of woodland I own. Fine, go ahead, say I. It’s been on the cards for a decade, planned for five years and an active project for two. But no ground has been broken.
Ecologists with high-vis jackets and clipboards keep coming out to survey the habitat, the otters, protected species and trees. There is a separate ecologist wearing a high-vis jacket in a separate van for each category.
They are now making second or third visits because, they say, too long has elapsed since the first one and they need to check if the trees are still there. The road will be built anyway. But notice: the more visits, the more these ecological consultants earn.
China is a dictatorship, but if you don’t annoy the Communist Party, you’re far more free to put up a building, start a research project or open a shop without interminable waits for beadles and busybodies to give you licences. If there is one way to regain rapid growth after Covid, it is surely to incentivise officials to take decisions more quickly. I wish I could think of a way to do that which won’t immediately be gamed, but there must be one. Fast decisions would unlock a tidal wave of entrepreneurial activity which at the moment just gives up.