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According to UK satirical magazine Private Eye, when Basingstoke Council found that a closed-circuit television camera it had installed outside a shopping centre to catch bicycle thieves was obscured by a tree it solved the problem…by chopping down the tree!
How many times in our own lives have we realized, too late in the day, that the first solution we arrived at to a problem was not actually the best? Quite often, we carry on doing things in a certain way through simple inertia.
Take the case of translation in the European Union. Translating official documents and major speeches into the four languages of the six founding members of the European ‘club’ was inconvenient, but not impossible. Successive enlargements, though, have created an EU of 27 member states, speaking around 20 languages. And still the principle that each member of the EU’s population of almost half a billion should be able to read the most important EU documents and hear the key speeches in his or her own language prevails. As a result, the duration of meetings of the main EU institutions is defined by the working hours and rest breaks of the EU’s army of translators as much as by the availability of senior politicians and top officials.
It is, of course, important for the health of a democracy that its citizens should be able to understand the main decisions of its institutions, and the reasoning behind them. But is there a better way of organizing EU affairs? Fidrmuc and Ginsburgh (European Economic Review, Aug 2007, Vol 51 No 6) advance the view that the EU should limit the number of official languages it uses to three or five. It should then calculate how much extra it currently spends on translating into the other EU languages, and allocate this money, on a per capita basis, to the various countries whose citizens do not speak one of the three or five official languages. These countries would be able to spend this extra money as they think best – either by translating EU documents into their own languages or on projects they thin more worthy.
The idea has much to commend it, but it is not a panacea. There would doubtless be bitter battles over which three or five languages should be seen as the ‘official’ EU languages. And there would be significant problems if a country decided to reallocate too much of its translation budget to other projects, leaving its citizens effectively unable to take part in democratic debate at European level about major decisions that affect them.
In similar vein, Collins (Economic Affairs, Sep 2007, Vol 27 No 3) questions whether spending on local economic development is as efficient as it could be. The author points out that local authorities currently compete against each other for people, public funds and private investment. But this competition prevents near-by rival cities, such as Southampton and Portsmouth, Manchester and Salford or Leeds and Bradford, from sharing public-service provision to the profit of growing businesses.
Collins suggests that local authorities should abandon local economic development in favour of infrastructure maintenance. Near-by cities that joined together to provide, for example, better regional transport links or a more highly qualified workforce in their region, would be likely to attract more business – to the benefit of all the people in their region.
Our reviewer concludes: ‘The article presents an attractive theory – provided local authorities are given the authority by central government to alter their focus.’