Turning accountability on its head
Once upon a time, if the state machine was not working properly, the cry would go up: "Something must be done!"
And people like me would take that cry and put it to a government minister: "They say something must be done. What are you going to do?"
The minister might promise to tweak the departmental engine, to clean a couple of spark-plugs. In the end, if people didn't like ministers' remedies, they'd vote them out. That was how accountability worked.
Not any more.
This summer, the prime minister explained to senior civil servants how he is replacing "the old system of bureaucratic accountability with a new system of democratic accountability".
Whitehall's mandarins were told their job was no longer "to guarantee the outcomes" in public services. Nor "to directly intervene to try and improve their performance".
Instead, David Cameron said, national government should simply "create the conditions" for public services to improve, "by making sure professionals answer to the public."
The prime minister is spinning the direction of accountability 180 degrees. From top-down to bottom-up. He promises "the people-power revolution" will change our country for the better. Under the new approach, when challenged as to why public services are not as good as they should be, a minister could legitimately shrug and say: "Don't ask me - I just create the conditions for others."
Accountability won't be driven by opposition politicians, quangocrats, journalists or pressure groups in Westminster. Bang go many of those expensive national bean-counters, beavering away to ensure taxpayers' money is being spent effectively and wisely. Instead, the idea is that pressure will come from the great British public - at local level.
The people will vote with their feet - competition and choice in the provision of schools and hospitals. They will vote with their hands - electing police commissioners. And they will keep tabs on how well things are going because, in what David Cameron calls the post-bureaucratic age where "information and power are held not locally or centrally but personally, by people in their homes", the workings of the machine will be open for all to see - a transparent system of government.
The response from a minister to the demand that "something must be done" will no longer be "I'm replacing the spark plugs". It will be: "The bonnet is open - here is a spanner and a rag."
It is certainly radical - but will it work?
The answer depends on how much we trust the public, how confident we are in the wisdom of crowds.
How much do you trust the wisdom of crowds?
The government believes that lifting the dead hand of central control will cut red tape, save money and inspire innovation.
But some worry that people power will further the self-interests and prejudices of those with the loudest voices, marginalising the vulnerable and widening inequality.
Direct democracy, critics say, produces policies which tend to be unworkable, unconscionable or plain silly.
The government's recent attempts at what's called "crowd-sourcing" have seen websites asking the British people for ideas on how to improve government and save money. Among the responses were proposals to sterilise young girls who "just breed at will", to replace MP housing allowances with tents and, helpfully, a recipe for beef and vegetable casserole. So far, not one idea from the public has translated into government action.
More seriously, though, there is a concern that bottom-up accountability is simply not as democratic as the prime minister likes to claim because the public don't, actually, want the responsibility.
While Westminster buzzes with an impassioned and informed crowd feverishly lobbying ministers on policy, at local level the experience is of a populace apparently too busy or too apathetic to get involved.
School governors, for example, can control millions of pounds in budgets that directly affect local children and yet there are complaints that so few parents are prepared to do the job that often appointments are made without any election at all. Routine local government business rarely suffers from too much public enthusiasm.
It could change. Handed the keys to the machine and conscious that the state intends simply to stand back and watch, citizens may move into the space and quietly take control.
But unless the public can be galvanised, power won't shift to the people. It will wash over them - taking accountability with it.