Excessive expenses claims by UK members of parliament is a major political scandal. But was the problem that they were simply greedy and had failed in the public’s eyes as leaders? Or should we also blame the system? While each MP shares some responsibility for the expenses system’s collapse, the MPs are a product of the system that surrounds them. Research shows the powerful effect of social influences (relational and environmental) on individuals’ decisions; so the system (built by Parliament over time) shaped the MPs’ behaviour today.
To find a sustainable solution to a problem like this requires an understanding of the system dynamics. What grievances exist about politically restricted past pay increases? What is the so-called “tea-room effect” that occurs when one outlandish claim rapidly leads to a flurry of similar claims as word spreads? What should we make of the errant personal examples set by those who should have known better? What is the status and nature of the relationships in and with the Fees Office, and how is power played out? How does the Fees Office get rid of its unexpected budget surplus at the end of the year? And, yes, what are the published rules, the ones that should have been well-known and stringently followed, but were deliberately left vague?
Both rational elements (e.g. the rules) and non-rational ones (e.g. the tea-room effect) need to be understood. As you begin to assemble a picture, you start to generate ideas about some levers in the system that are amenable to being pulled on to bring about improvement and change. The deeper one digs, the less the problem appears to be one of individual morality and personal leadership — and the less likely the solutions are to be found by trying to elect more honest MPs. If the MPs failed the Parliamentary employment system, then that system failed them, too.