The pessimism about the UK’s prospects during the coming year is almost tangible and is coupled with a level of scepticism about the ability of the government to overcome the manifold challenges we face that I cannot remember seeing since the late 1970s. The global financial crisis and Iraq shook our collective confidence in the system in the early noughties. Now, all sorts of other problems are piling up: inflation induced by lockdown money printing and Ukraine-related energy price hikes – which has forced a sharp upward turn in global interest rates; inflation-linked strikes and industrial unrest; an NHS that sucks in ever more resources without improving outcomes; illegal immigrants crossing the channel with apparent impunity; the poorly planned transition to Net Zero, with the prospect of blackouts when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow; the integrity of the Union, with the most immediate threat stemming from the failure to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol issue – the list goes on and on.
All these issues, whether external or internal, require a government response. Pulling together a credible strategy to tackle these challenges is hardly going to be straightforward. One can forgive Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for having taken time to reflect before announcing his priorities for the coming year on 4 January. A key early test of progress will be the local elections in May. As a councillor in Sevenoaks, I have to report that the mood of the troops in West Kent is decidedly downbeat. However good a job our dedicated crew have done for our local community, we know that we are extremely vulnerable to a national protest vote. Looking beyond May, if Sunak’s administration fails to get traction, then there is every chance that the Tories will be absolutely hammered at the next general election.
Personally, I reckon that if the Tories cannot get their act together, we will deserve the kicking we get from the voters. That is what it means to be democratically accountable. In my case, someone else will have to take on responsibility for keeping our local theatre going, getting the best out of our public open spaces and implementing the local neighbourhood plan. That is democracy in action. I supported Brexit precisely because, for me, the ability of ordinary voters to hold politicians and their governments to account trumps all other considerations. I also consider that, in the long run, we will reap considerable economic benefits from Brexit, provided that we make the right policy choices and apply them effectively. Concerted Remoaner efforts to claim that Brexit has already imposed massive economic damage on the UK economy have already been comprehensively rebutted in a string of articles on this site – and, most notably, by Graham Gudgin, Julian Jessop and Harry Western in a brilliant paper that has been widely cited in national media and is now heading towards 40,000 views.
That said, Brexit means that it is now on us, the UK, to deliver. We can no longer blame unaccountable technocrats in Brussels seeking to impose regulatory frameworks that are contrary to our own economic interests. But is our ruling elite ready to take responsibility for delivery? Or is it just too tempting now to take the easy route and blame everything on Brexit? One wonders, perhaps unfairly, whether many of the great and the good would be much more comfortable sub-contracting the administrative heavy lifting to Brussels, while they focus on virtue-signalling initiatives that promise much more than they deliver. As George Bernard Shaw once pointed out, ‘Liberty means responsibility, that is why most men dread it.’ I fear that institutionally we grew rather too accustomed to out-sourcing large chunks of government to Brussels. It may well be that parts of the UK administrative machine will have to re-learn what constitutes good government – or develop systems that are better suited to addressing the policy challenges of the new era.
The secret to success in any organisation – in the public or private sector – is consistently good decision-making, underpinned by a strong organisational culture and an absolute commitment to delivery. Government policy and decision-making is based on interplay between elected politicians and their civil servants. I was brought up to believe in an administrative system in which ministers took responsibility for their departments. In the event of a serious departmental failure, it was for the minister concerned to accept responsibility for that failure – and resign if necessary. This convention is admirable in principle, but only works properly if a number of conditions are fulfilled. For one thing, the minister needs to be in a position to exert a certain degree of policy control if they are going to take full responsibility for the performance of their department (- How often have we read stories in the media about ministers pulling the levers of power, only to find that nothing happens?). The system also pre-supposes that the civil service is both impartial and effective. But is it impartial and effective? And who holds it to account when things go wrong?
While ministers strive, quite rightly, not to lump blame for failure onto their civil servants, it is becoming painfully obvious that it is too simplistic to ascribe failures of public administration exclusively to the politicians. In one recent piece on the problems besetting the NHS, a frustrated commentator asked: ‘Who is actually in charge of this shambles? It is widely, though wrongly, assumed that the Health Secretary runs the NHS but he has little power, as Steve Barclay is the latest to find out. NHS England has a management structure with the invisible Amanda Pritchard at its apex as chief executive. Does she have any clout and if so what is she doing? Or must we look to the chairmen and boards of the hospital trusts, since it is here where the biggest problem lies, the so-called “handover” of patients with nowhere to go.’
It is also clear that widespread concern about manifest internal departmental weakness doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Way back in 2006, Home Secretary John Reid complained that the immigration directorate was ‘not fit for purpose’. It still isn’t – but that didn’t stop the current top official at the Home Office being awarded a knighthood in the New Year honours list. Ennoblement, knighthoods and gongs go with the turf for the leadership of our civil service – and, more often than not, reflect seniority rather than delivery. In my day as a diplomat overseas, it was illustrative that ambassadors would devote a disproportionate amount of their time to preparing for a visit by the Queen for the simple reason that it meant an almost guaranteed knighthood. In short, I think there is a strong argument to be made that we are far too complacent about the effectiveness of our civil service machine.
The simple truth is that, however accomplished and talented our senior officials might be, government delivery is poor. The NHS is on its knees, advice provided to government on lockdown policy looks questionable (to put it mildly), illegal immigration is out of control, the lack of a sensible planned route to Net Zero and associated risks of blackouts and impoverishment all look like examples of failure for which bureaucrats must surely shoulder a share of the blame. The Tories will be held accountable for this at the ballot box, but – speaking as a former civil servant – we need to consider the role of the civil service in the delivery of poor outcomes and what we need to do about it.
Self-evidently, it is for the heads of civil service departments and independent publicly funded organisations – not ministers – to run their organisations. That means preserving or enhancing organisational culture, recruiting the right people, securing and managing resources and delivering on departmental objectives. There are all sorts of processes and procedures in the civil service designed to preserve and enhance effectiveness. But the public mood is one of increasing frustration about the failure of government to get to grips with a range of policy challenges. And we do need to ask whether the administrative support to government is as good as it should be. This is a massively complex issue, but here are a number of concerns about the culture of our civil service that I would flag.
The triumph of process over delivery
During my time as a civil servant, colleagues frequently complained that process was crowding out delivery. One very simple explanation for management focus on inputs rather than outputs, of course, is that delivery is hard to do.
Towards the end of my career, I spent a lot of time working with senior colleagues to re-design and, hopefully, improve my department’s processes and procedures. Fluency in the language of programme and resource management was a key skill that marked you out for leadership. One of my final departmental tasks was to conduct a review of core competencies as part of a wider programme to get the staff appraisal and annual planning process into better shape. No one questions the need for decent management processes and procedures. No large organisation can function without them. But the acid test comes when the rubber hits the road: have the systems you designed and the people you have appointed actually ahieved the required outcomes – or not. There were plenty of colleagues who observed to me that all too often very senior leaders were rather better at the politics than they were at the tedious business of delivery.
Perhaps the most obvious example of process substituting for delivery can be seen in the way that wokery has been seized on in Whitehall departments and non-departmental public bodies. I well remember getting requests from a number of those that I line managed seeking responsibility for devising and implementing diversity programmes. They could see how important it would be to their careers to get that HR box ticked. It goes without saying that treating staff fairly and promoting on merit is the duty of any organisation. But claiming diversity outcomes in place of core departmental delivery targets looks more like costly and wasteful displacement activity. There is also a non-impartial political dimension to it, with at least one permanent secretary publicly accused of resisting the government’s anti-woke agenda. As I warned in an article in 2021, identity politics and impartiality are not compatible.
And just in case I am accused of being a culture war focused Tory dinosaur, here is a quote from a recently retired senior civil servant who said this to me about his former department: ‘If the unmeritocratic woke HR policy that my department is currently applying continues, the department as a whole will fail to deliver what taxpayers expect – and it will be wholly irrelevant in 10-15 years.’
Thanks to Iraq, groupthink in Whitehall has a bad name. Sadly, that does not mean that groupthink has gone away. Far from it. Groupthink at a senior government level looks to have led to decidedly sub-optimal outcomes on Covid lockdown policy. Policy-planning assumptions underpinning energy security and the transition to Net Zero are also beginning to look distinctly questionable.
A striking recent example of the dangers of groupthink has emerged in the chapter of the FT journalist Sebastian Payne’s book on the fall of Boris Johnson that deals with the UK’s policy on Ukraine. Payne cites ‘A Cabinet Minister close to Johnson’ who told him: ‘It all goes back to the agreement to send arms to Ukraine, which started some months before [the invasion], despite enormous official opposition. He [Johnson] took on the Blob and won.’ Payne concluded that, ‘throughout his premiership, Johnson sometimes failed to demonstrate the know-how on bending the civil service to his way. Ukraine was the notable exception.’
In many ways, the tradition of the gifted all-rounder still dominates in Whitehall. High-flyers are identified relatively early in their careers. These officials are deliberately given cross departmental experience as they progress up the ladder. In many ways, this seems eminently sensible. But the obvious danger is that gifted amateurs end up in charge of departments whose core work they do not really understand. Nor are those officials likely to stay in a department long enough to get on top of the really difficult challenges. When crises hit, leaders who don’t really understand what their departments do or how they do it are unlikely to perform well.
There is also a risk that in grooming officials for the most senior posts, there may be a tendency to self-select a group of people who consciously or unconsciously share the same views and approach: ‘people like us’, in other words. If you are not ‘one of us’, you are likely to face problems. As the non-civil servant Kate Bingham, widely praised for her work as leader of the Vaccine Task Force, wryly observed: ‘If I had ever been asked the question “What is the biggest threat to the success of the VTF?” the honest answer would have been “Large parts of the rest of Whitehall”.’ Despite the democratic mandate for Brexit, contacts of mine in the civil service were terrified of admitting to having supported Brexit because they were convinced it would be career ending for them.
Although he was not specifically referring to Whitehall, Neil Wellum (a former civil servant with 30 years of service) summed the wider problem up rather neatly in 2020 in a letter to the Telegraph, when he observed that the Covid-19 pandemic ‘has exposed some fundamental decision-making weaknesses in the machinery of government in Britain.’ He saw this ‘as a consequence of the Modernising Government programme that started almost 20 years ago. Since then, the balance between trust and experience on one hand and process and scrutiny on the other has been damagingly shifted too far towards the latter… It is not uncommon for almost the entire upper-management tier of executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies to comprise very able people who have no practical experience of the area they oversee.’ Worse, he continued, their approach tended to be resource intensive – inflating the number of senior management posts and distracting staff from doing the job. In short, crisis situations such as the pandemic had exposed the need for genuine ‘experience at the top’.
Loss of impartiality
Back in August, I posted an article on this site entitled ‘Is Civil Service Reform Overdue?’ In that piece, I re-visited the issue of civil service impartiality and concluded that the civil service had become increasingly politicised in recent years. I recalled numerous conversations with serving and former civil servants who remained utterly opposed to Brexit, despite repeated expressions of UK voter intent to the contrary. Nor was there any compunction from many of my interlocutors about describing Boris Johnson and his closest allies as both mad and bad. Plainly, such attitudes are not impartial. In essence, the key point I was making in August was that the Civil Service cannot have its cake and eat it: it cannot be both political and unaccountable.
The question then becomes: Does the leadership of the civil service accept there is an impartiality problem? If it does, what is it going to do about it? For example, the Civil Service Code is excellent – and very clear on impartiality. But how often are staff trained on it? To what extent do our most senior civil servants really feel bound by it? If, on the other hand, there is no willingness to address the issue internally, some form of external reform may have to be considered. If the civil service can no longer be considered impartial, it may be that a US-style system of political appointees will come under consideration.
Disdain for democracy
I worry that the establishment reaction to Brexit since 2016 has constituted a crossing of the line from the proper to the improper, from the democratic to the anti-democratic.
I think part of the problem comes from an establishment mindset that has developed over the past quarter of a century or so about what it is that constitutes the national interest. That mindset, which became deeply embedded during the Blair years, encompassed elements such as membership of the EU, globalism, unrestrained immigration and the power of big government. When he became Prime Minister, David Cameron implicitly acknowledged this when he let it be known that he was the ‘heir to Blair’. If the civil service leadership groupthink consensus is that remaining in (or re-joining) the EU is in the national interest, then – hey presto – you are being impartial rather than political. And if you are accused of ignoring the repeatedly expressed democratic will of the people, you can happily dismiss outcomes that run counter to the establishment definition of the national interest on the grounds that they are ‘populist’.
The degree to which the Blair administration managed to embed consensus about what constitutes the UK national interest is very striking. Cameron wasn’t the only ‘heir to Blair’. The leadership cadre of the civil service also fall into that category. One might go so far as to suggest that the Blair administration succeeded in remodelling the whole machinery of state in its own image. Woe betide any government that now kicks against the Blairite paradigm.
This is surely incompatible with our democratic system. It would neither be desirable nor practical for new governments to remodel the system the way that Blair did – indeed, there should be safeguards against this form of ‘state capture’. If standing up for Ukraine or bringing in an outsider to deliver vaccines in a pandemic have taught us anything, it is that the Blob does not always get it right and are all too often laggards when it comes to delivery. Civil servants should forget politics and focus on getting the job done. And when things go wrong, civil service leaders – as well as ministers – should expect to be held to account. In those circumstances the gongs and gold-plated pensions would be thoroughly deserved.