No wonder we’re so often governed badly

It’s the easy, soft option. Civil servants blame ministers and ministers blame civil servants. It’s not unknown for one to praise the other (as Lynne Featherstone did recently) but of course, neither group is perfect, leaving plenty of material for the mutual buck-passing when people wonder why government often seems to run so poorly.

For politicians, there is the alibi that they are what democracy produces. Having politicians who so often prioritise what they think the public wants leads to many flaws but is rather better overall than alternatives such as rulers who ignore the public. If it weren’t such a cliché, I would now quote Winston Churchill on democracy…

But what of civil servants? We can choose what jobs to have for them, what objectives to give them and what sort of people to recruit. There’s no ‘well, that’s democracy’ equivalent cover story. But there does seem to be one common thread running through the observations of those who have seen the civil service up close for extended periods. It’s that the civil service staffing Whitehall and its geographically dispersed senior outfits around the country prioritise policy expertise over operational experience.

As Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope pointed out in their book, the civil service looks for, trains and promotes those who can best give policy advice to ministers and other politicians. It only gives a pale shadow of that priority to the ability to actually run things or to advise on how to run things well.

It’s a point made in a slightly different form by Nick Hillman in his funny and engrossing account of being a Special Advisor to David Willetts.

The jokes are good, but there’s this too:

The turnover of regular officials is so rapid that special advisers can become a source of institutional memory. As a Number 10 special adviser and the instigator of the Blair Government’s school reform programme, Andrew Adonis found he was ‘virtually the only point of continuity in the entire [academy] programme, and I became more so with each passing year’. He went on: “The notion that Britain has a ‘permanent’ and ‘expert’ Civil Service is largely a misnomer. Most career civil servants change jobs every year or two, unrelated to the needs of the state”…

After three-and-a-half years as a special adviser, I found myself working alongside a fifth set of ministerial private secretaries, a third permanent secretary and a radically different set of officials.

Such turnover militates against developing real expertise. It hinders people getting the sort of detailed experience that lets you spot the really important difference between a neat idea that will be a nightmare to administer and the apparently tedious detail that will make a service run far better.

Politicians often talk about how many civil servants there are and whether the public sector payroll should be larger or smaller. But it isn’t only a matter of how many people you have; it is a matter of what you do with them.

Read Nick Hillman’s account here…


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