As I have commented elsewhere, and frankly is not my most penetrative insight ever, politicians are adept at blaming others for their mistakes. As an ex senior civil servant, I am sensitive, although hopefully not defensive, to claims by political figures that civil servants are to blame for the failures of policy programmes. It is particularly invidious when, by the very nature of the role of civil servants, it is very difficult for them to defend themselves.
Of course I am not so naive to believe that the Whitehall machine is perfect. There is clearly very much that can be done to improve it, not least to widen its diversity; increase its expertise in management more generally, and in procurement and project management in particular; and to promote more radical implementation strategies, with private sector techniques for the management of risk. However the usual charge against the civil service from politicians is none of these; rather it is that officials refuse to implement government proposals and frustrate government intentions, in classic Yes Minister style.
Let’s examine the latest such attack on the civil servant by the spectacularly rude, Steve Hilton. [As an aside, I would say that in any organisation, results are more likely to be achieved by building bridges rather than deliberately destroying them. The latter style might work in Silicon Valley, but is far less successful in London.] Now I always prefer to read original sources, but I have been unable to find an online copy of Steve Hilton’s speech at Stanford. So I am reliant on the widely quoted press reports, with the obvious potential that I have lost something in the transmission.
With that qualification, Steve Hilton seems to be saying that he was disappointed by how few government documents related to implementing the coalition agreement and mentioned 15%. He complained that too many actions relate to implementing European legislation and directives and too many to implementing previous government policy.
Well I have news for Mr Hilton. It was politicians, not civil servants who decided to join Europe; subsequently confirmed in a referendum. Until that position changes, there is no point in blaming civil servants for the fact that our decision to be part of Europe has ongoing policy implications for the UK.
Secondly, one strength of the UK political system is its relative stability. Business requires stability; organisation like the NHS require stability. Indeed one of the criticisms of government health policy is that the NHS faces yet another top down reorganisation. The fact that 15% of activity is devoted to changing policy strikes me as demonstrating an impressive rate of change, not the huge disappointment that Hilton seems to believe.
Of course the real problem is that some politicians expect civil servants simply to carry out instructions. More effective politicians realise that an important role of the civil service is to question and challenge. In my experience, good Ministers adapt their decisions when proper and appropriate questions are asked. Weak politicians, unable to deal with legitimate questions, fume and rant about the obstructive civil service. Weak politicians would prefer our civil service to be full of “yes” men and women. It is essential to our national interest that it is not.
Courtesy of Mark Adams via Left Foot First