Why is our new government so accident-prone?


by Sunder Katwala    
10:45 am - July 10th 2010

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I am quite surprised by just how badly the new government has been doing on basic administrative competence.

Let us acknowledge that David Cameron is rather good at the tonality and public perfomance aspects of “being Prime Minister”, without perhaps placing quite quite the premium on etiquette which so impresses Martin Kettle.

On policy, the record on ever the highest-profile issues has been astonishingly poor.

George Osborne’s first big idea, the Office of Budget Responsibility, is facing ever more credibility challenges.

The scale and frequency of Michael Gove’s abject apologies to the House of Commons and everybody else is pretty much unparalleled in modern times.

As far as I can tell, the LibDem ministers have so far seemed less likely to make a complete horlicks of high-profile projects (since the personal and political misfortune of David Laws and the private shenanigans of Chris Huhne don’t quite figure here).

No doubt there were many examples under Labour too.

That the government has made a number of proposals – on rape anonymity, and the 55% confidence rule – which did not survive 5 minutes external scrutiny perhaps reflects inexperience among ministers and advisers. (The government’s evident surprise when its “fairness graph” in the budget Red Book fell apart within 24 hours did demonstrate the difference between opposition and government, and a surprising failure to imagine or war game the likely scenarios and challenges).

Yet now I wonder if there may also be an underlying ideological reason why this government may prove particularly accident prone over the years ahead.

The idea of scrapping the census strikes me as potentially an interesting symbol of a way of thinking about government. Now doubt the government thinks it demonstrates its bold willingness to “think outside the box” in the conviction that you can always get more for less, which is the first article of faith of the Cameroons.

But it reminded me rather more of an interesting point made about the Reagan and Bush administrations by George Packer in a New Yorker essay on the ideological right.

Even Reagan, the Moses of the conservative movement, was more ideological in his rhetoric than in his governance. Conservatives have canonized him for cutting taxes and regulation, moving the courts to the right, and helping to vanquish the Soviet empire. But he proved less dogmatic than most of his opponents and some of his followers expected

[Reagan] had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement. He didn’t come close to achieving it and didn’t try very hard, recognizing early that the public would be happy to have its taxes cut as long as its programs weren’t touched. And Reagan was a poor steward of the unglamorous but necessary operations of the state. Wilentz notes that he presided over a period of corruption and favoritism, encouraging hostility toward government agencies and “a general disregard for oversight safeguards as among the evils of ‘big government.

The neglect of the unglamorous business of government would not have been a problem of traditional, paternalistic Conservatism.

Might it prove a rather frequent unintended consequence of what could otherwise be a positive enthusiasm for ‘big society’ politics?

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


“The scale and frequency of Michael Gove’s abject apologies to the House of Commons and everybody else is pretty much unparalleled in modern times.”

Ever considered that that’s because the last lot simply didn’t do apologies? No, thought not. Personally, I find it quite refreshing.

Incidentally, don’t you consider it actually rather quite noble of Gove to take the blame for what was obviously a Civil Service cockup wrt the school list? And who knows if it was a cockup, or (and more likely, IMHO) disgruntled ‘civil servants’ intentionally trying to embarrass the new administration?

I certainly don’t carry a torch for the ConDem alliance, but such petty political point scoring by Labour and their apologists certainly isn’t going to endear them to the electorate. Don’t that party have more important things to consider, like trying to find a leader who will actually adopt some vaguely socialist policies, and selling them to the public?

2. Sunder Katwala

This is extracted from Next Left: the initial post contained an important caveat, before going on to make the point about anti-statist ideology:

“Now, being a believer in value-based politics, I am by nature very sceptical of claims that one should expect any great difference in technocratic or managerial competence between centre-left, centre-right or centrist governments, particularly in a system with a permanent civil service. No doubt there were many examples under Labour too. (The famous Byers-Mottram fiasco and sweary masterclass springs to mind).”

http://www.nextleft.org/2010/07/well-why-wouldnt-anti-statist.html

New Labour blundered around plenty, without apologies. At least these tories have an idea about manners ;-)

The Westminster Bubble bites back?

4. Flowerpower

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a number of left-wing civil servants were engaging in deliberate acts of sabotage in order to embarrass Coalition ministers.

The policy of cutting back on SpAds may need to be re-thought.

Apparently, according to ConHome, the Gove school list balls up is a grassy knoll type conspiracy involving Ed Balls……you couldn’t make it up.

Perhaps it’s because they’re newbies?

Incompetence aside, the fact that proposals are actually being scrutinized in parliament and amended for the better is definitely a good thing. (Although the 55% thing hasn’t actually changed much, just increased to 66% – which I’m happy with.) What’s the point of parliament if this didn’t happen?

55% didnt survive external scrutiny? Which is why it’s being increased to 66%.

Sunder you are an overtly-partisan court jester, disappointed that it’s no longer your side in power. When you have criticisms of substance to make, and aren’t merely trying to fling enough poo at the fan in the hope it hits (and sticks?), you’ll be welcome back.

8. Flowerpower

@ 5

The inaccurate list of school rebuildings was compiled by the Partnership for Schools quango. The quango that has presided over Ed Balls’ school buildings programme and all of its cost over-runs and building design problems.

Aha.

Still, Gove should have known better than to trust an organization with such a track record of incompetence. All quangos should be immediately purged of Labour appointees.

Don’t underestimate this nasty government. The privatisation of the NHS that NO ONE voted for has started and it will be completed in just a few years.

Yet the Shadow Health Secretary who should be on 24 hour news spreading the truth about Lansley;’s odious plans is spending his time gallivanting around the nation fighting a leadership campaign that he hasn’t a cat in hells chance of winning. Lansley has a good chuckle every morning.

I reckon the first big casualty will be IDS one way or another. I have seen him speak and from what I understand he is simply not very bright, though has managed to surround himself with some clever people over the last few years. I met him in the corridor once after he spoke at the cambridge union. He came up to me like I was really pleased to be meeting him in the flesh. I told him he was pathetic. FTW.

Sorry, there *never was* a 55% confidence rule. There *was* a 55% dissolution proposal, which *quite rightly if you believe in fixed term parliaments* has been lifted to 66.7%.

Confidence would always have been at 50% plus one. How can people mix this stuff up?

@4: “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a number of left-wing civil servants were engaging in deliberate acts of sabotage in order to embarrass Coalition ministers. The policy of cutting back on SpAds may need to be re-thought.”

The number of Spads about doubled under New Labour from c. 39 at the end of John Major’s administration to getting on for 80 not long after Blair became PM.

Recall that Jo Moore, a political adviser to Stephen Byers, emailed colleagues on the morning of 9/11 in 2001 advising that this was a good day to bury bad news.

Famously, Blair had an uneasy relationship with career civil servants – hence his preference for “sofa government” (without minute taking to record proceedings and decisions) and for bypassing Parliament to announce new policies.

When Gordon Brown became Chancellor, he ignored the chief economic adviser in Treasury, Alan Budd, who went on to resign. Brown then appointed Ed Balls in his place thereby indicating that economic advice was regarded as inevitably partisan.

As an ex-civil servant who occasionally saw ministers, I’m fascinated to observe that the incoming Conservative administration is exhibiting similar paranoid tendencies about the civil service but then recall the working motto of the civil service: To speak truth unto power.

Pehaps contrary to popular myth, civil servants are not monolithic and nor are government departments. In retirement, in one of the last phone conversations I had with previous colleauges in 2002, one virtually terminated the conversation with the question: “You’re not one of those who think we shouldn’t join the Euro, are you?”, while the sceptical views of the other about the claimed benefits of joining Euro converged with my own – and the formal position of both the minister (Patricia Hewitt) and the department at the time strongly favoured joining the Euro at the earliest opportunity. Gordon Brown in the Treasury had different ideas.

IME career civil servants are fearsomely objective and non-partisan and will certainly remark if a colleague comes across as pushing personal partisan preferences. Colleagues who were plainly not inclined to promote leftist positions could be highly critical of the policies or competence of Conservative ministers. One of the sharpest – and most pleasant – (Conservative) ministers I saw was the late Eric Forth:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Forth

During a Conservative government of the 1990s, I can recall reading a circular minute from the permanent secretary of the department warning civil servant to beware of a named special adviser.

Btw how did Shaun Woodward, a former Conservative Party communications chief, become a New Labour minister?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaun_Woodward

13. Rhys Williams

So he hasn’t apologized really just snidely blamed civil servants for the mistake by briefing a few tame journalists.
Class act.
I do love it when right wingers use the words purge, they really are moving towards the left

14. Sevillista

All the talk of civil servants obstructing the Government is well wide of the mark. Civil servants – as always – are working hard to deliver the dictats of Ministers and work their ideas like “Big Society will solve everything”, “Let’s half the record low numbers of civil servants we have” and “Let’s punish civil servants by cutting their pay, abolishing their pensions and taking their redundancy pay away with a view to making them redundant 1 day later”. Many civil servants – at least in Whitehall – hated the last Government and voted for this one.

I think the problem is that the civil service are keen to be seen by Ministers not to be obstructing the implementation of Conservative ideas.

As a result, there is maybe not quite the emphasis to Ministers about the risks of their ‘get things done quickly in the honeymoon period’ approach to Government.

But I think this is what Ministers (and right-wingers here) want – a civil service completely unobstructive to the Government’s plans focussing on delivering them for good or ill. This is the shift away from evidence-based policy-making to principles-based policy-making that the Tories wanted.

15. Roberto C

@11 JesusJohn

Because people are moronic and want to believe their own Labour lies.

16. Flowerpower

The public sector workers employed by quangos perhaps do not exhibit the same professional standards as Bob B claims for the Home Civil Service.

Like all political parties, the Conservatives are a pragmatic conglomeration of ideologies, policy preferences and personal aversions focused on the vision and ambition of being the governing party..

Some, perhaps many, are sceptical about the integrity, objectivity or competence of the civil service but over the last year or so, I’ve detected what I think can only be described as a growing aversion or animosity on the part of some Conservatives to virtually all who work in the public sector.

The “Big Society” notion and the Bank of England’s new wide ranging but thoroughly opaque remit for maintaining financial stability are classic escape provisions for a government intent on evading potential responsibilities downstream by passing the buck well ahead of eventualities. These are model escape clauses which can and will be invoked if the going gets tough.

“It’s a pity about Fred but no one from the local community had volunteered to cover that day.”

“Well, you know, I’ve every sympathy but the empowered Bank of England didn’t act decisively in a timely way as it should have.”

@14: “This is the shift away from evidence-based policy-making to principles-based policy-making that the Tories wanted.”

Predictably, having disregarded available evidence, the civil service will get blamed when the policies don’t work out.

18. Sevillista

@bobB

It’s a deliberate feature of their approach to public services.

1. Demonise civil service in press to prepare ground for scapegoating
exercise and attack on pay, conditions and employment and demoralise civil service.

2. Pay civil servants less in real terms (and abolish perks such as employer pension contributions, defined benefit pension schemes and better-than-statutory redundancy pay). See their relative pay plummet even further compared with the private sector – already less than the private sector and having slipped further behind since 1997 (however much the right intentionally confuse very big pay rises in the NHS for the wider public sector). Abolish – or tightly constrain – right to strike to require a majority of all employed staff (not just union members who vote) to make strikes legal

3. Sack half of all civil servants (HMT want scenarios of 33%/50% cuts in central admin for the spending review)

4. Best staff leave (poor pay), administration gets worse (under-manning),
average pay goes up for statistical reasons helping future demonisation of civil service (transactional staff on lower pay easier to privatise than other staff

5. Easier to privatise services (and need to replace cut functions due to poor central admin)

Serves civil servants right for bringing the economy down by carelessly gambling on complex US sub-prime mortgage debt related derivatives for short-term financial gain while ignoring the risks, I guess.

19. Charlieman

OP, Sunder: A quote from George Packer highlighted “And Reagan was a poor steward of the unglamorous but necessary operations of the state.”, then Sunder’s words “The neglect of the unglamorous business of government would not have been a problem of traditional, paternalistic Conservatism.

Might it prove a rather frequent unintended consequence of what could otherwise be a positive enthusiasm for ‘big society’ politics?”

I’m feeling sluggish at the moment and I don’t fully follow Sunder’s argument. But whilst possibly misunderstanding…

Outside the USSR, nobody expected the Prime Minister or President to steward all government. In the UK we devolve responsibility, and when we do top down government the results are ugly. Across the parties and across Whitehall, the current debate is *how* to devolve not whether. Thankfully centralists like Jack Straw are of the past.

Cameron really screwed up delivery of the “big society” idea. That is an opportunity for the liberal left not a sniping point.

20. Charlieman

@17 Bob B: “…I’’ve detected what I think can only be described as a growing aversion or animosity on the part of some Conservatives to virtually all who work in the public sector.”

I dunno. There is public discontent about super-managing services, but I don’t think that Clapham omnibus travellers despise all civil servants. We know that 90% of civil servants (or teachers, whatever) are the people who make things work when senior people make daft decisions.

A couple of weeks ago, UCU (my union) were collecting signatures for a petition protesting against reduced government funding for higher education. I declined to sign. If my managers were given more money, they would piss it down the drain; they first need to learn how to spend the current pot.

I dont think people on the wrong end of the cuts would agree.

@20

A senior civil servant, who was instrumental in my joining the civil service in the mid 1980s, remarked to me that the impression of the civil service which most of the public ever gained was based on meeting the (very) under-paid clerical grades in job centres and benefits payment offices.

The public seldom get to meet first division civil servants on any regular basis and when they do, the context is usually official meetings focused on specific and often very narrow agendas. The first hurdle for selection into the first division is mostly degree class. Other factors matter as well but class of degree is the first hurdle. Unsurprisingly, first division civil servants tend to be academic, unusually literate and articulate. When department-wide computer networks were installed c. 1990, emailing took off almost instantly.

I’m unsure why but I’m now gaining a distinct impression that swathes of the Conservative Party despise public sector workers in general and the civil service in particular. But there’s little evidence to suppose that the Blairite ascendancy had much empathy for the civil service either, hence the doubling in the namber of Spads and the introduction of sofa government. I suspect that Blair felt uncomfortable dealing with civil servants but recall Ted Honderich’s assessment of Blair:

“Honderich [emeritous professor of philosophy UCL] is also a consequentialist, which partly explains his hatred towards Tony Blair. ‘He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions,’ he spits. ‘He doesn’t understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair’s main problem is that he’s not very bright.’”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2005/mar/22/academicexperts.highereducationprofile

Btw a personal friend from uni who became one of Sunder Katwala’s predecessors as Gen Sec of the Fabian Society went on to join the civil service in the late 1960s and had an illustrious career so previous political activism is no barrier to joining the civil service.

As for public spending on the tertiary education sector, teachers and especially academics are not well-paid, particularly as compared with the salaries of senior officials in local government. In a chat with a near neighbour yesterday, he mentioned that he’d bought a copy of a local newspaper because of a headline reporting that council officials were paid more than £100,000 a year. That was evidently news to him although not to me.

[moderated out]

From behind the Murdoch paywall:

“The £216,000-a-year quango chief at the centre of the school cuts debacle is set to lose his job as Michael Gove, the education secretary, prepares to face a fresh Commons onslaught. Tim Byles, chief executive of the body in charge of school building programmes, is being blamed by Whitehall sources for the series of errors which forced Gove to make a humiliating Commons apology. A government dossier was passed to The Sunday Times this weekend drawing attention to the size of Byles’s salary and the £30m annual cost of his quango’s sprawling bureaucracy.”

Sunday Times

25. Matt Munro

“and a surprising failure to imagine or war game the likely scenarios and challenges”.

Which is to be appluaded – the last thing the elctorate wants is more government by focus group, obsessed with grabbing headlines and employing armies of spiv sociologists, pop psychologists and straightforoward sociopaths like campbell and mandelson to “sell” us policy

26. Matt Munro

“But there’s little evidence to suppose that the Blairite ascendancy had much empathy for the civil service either, hence the doubling in the namber of Spads and the introduction of sofa government. I suspect that Blair felt uncomfortable dealing with civil servants but recall Ted Honderich’s assessment of Blair:”

Blair and Brown hated the civil service. Didn’t trust their advice and undermined them at every opportunity with special advisors, quangos and consultants. Basically wanted to be surrounded by yes men.

@24: “From behind the Murdoch paywall”

Illuminating news from the Telegraph on Saturday:

“Michael Gove is facing fresh questions over his judgment after it emerged the under-fire Education Secretary ignored warnings from his senior officials and ‘rushed out’ an error-strewn list of more than 700 axed school building projects.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7883298/Michael-Gove-ignored-official-advice-in-school-building-row.html

IMO a motivating factor in this developing row is that the Labour government had devised the Schools for the Future programme to generate work for the construction industry, much of which is on the edge after housebuilding last year had fallen to the lowest level since 1946:
http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKLNE61I00W20100219

Without the schools building programme and with housebuilding at such a low ebb, prospects for swathes of the construction industry are bleak.

@26: “Blair and Brown hated the civil service. Didn’t trust their advice and undermined them at every opportunity with special advisors, quangos and consultants. Basically wanted to be surrounded by yes men.”

What’s changed lately?

The civil service is deeply non-partisan. Politicians of all hues and ideologies are spoken about dispassionately and their policy proposals are dissected with analytical but tactful precision. The civil service embodies a wealth of experience about what levers of power can be made to work and what ones don’t. Basically, that’s why both the main parties have an aversion to the civil service.

When Sir Keith Joseph came into his department as Mrs Thatcher’s first industry minister in May 1979, he issued a reading list for the senior civil servants headed by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). There was a purpose to this in the context of the inherited industrial policies and intervenist habits of the preceding Labour government. Sir Keith evidently wanted to remind them of Smith on the invisible hand and this passage:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Smith

In the lead up to the 1979 election, Sir Keith had toured the country speaking about the merits of market systems and the profit motive and why industrial interventionism was inefficient and should end.

Once in office, Sir Keith was approving cheques for hundreds of millions to prop up British Leyland – later renamed the Rover Group – through the industrial recession of the early 1980s. By the time it was eventually returned to the private sector in 1988, the Rover Group with its predecessors had digested £3.4 billions of taxpayers’ money.

Civil servants were still talking about Sir Keith’s reading list in the 1990s. Perhaps they still are.

29. Rhys Williams

Like I said Gove is not knight in shining armour but a slimy politician willing to blame other for his own reckless behaviour.
He would have fitted well into New Labour

Gove knew his list wasn’t correct, he was told so by senior civil servants the week before that it wasn’t ready for prime time. But he knew that he was up Monday morning on the media grid, it was his day in the limelight and he had to play his part in building the narrative of Labour last 13 years.

So, he announces BSF would be scrapped because Labour hadn’t funded it properly when that fell to bits after the PS confirmed Ball’s version of events, he changed tack and suddenly it was too bureaucratic. The real reason for its demise is that he needs the money to pay for his resurrection of grant-maintained schools under the catchy theme of parent power.

Undoubtedly the coalition are heading for more cock-ups, almost none of them have government experience and they’re sacking ~800,000 civil servants the majority of which do a bit more than shuffle paper clips.

@ 14: “But I think this is what Ministers (and right-wingers here) want – a civil service completely unobstructive to the Government’s plans focussing on delivering them for good or ill.”

That is in fact what they’re supposed to do. Civil servants should of course point out problems they see with prospective policies but their job is to implement the will of the government not obstruct it, (this goes for both sides of political spectrum).

@Falco

Absolutely. The trouble is that politicians are apt to regard any criticism of their party policies – or the pointing out of potential implementation problems – as blatant obstruction. If the minister decides to press ahead regardless and the anticipated problems materialise, that is taken as convincing evidence of deliberate sabotage.

The interesting insight is that this happens with both Conservative and Labour administrations.

The times have long since passed when a minister will accept responsibility for an administrative screw up in his/her department and resign even when the minister is not directly responsible. The classic constitutional precedent is the Crichel Down Affair, which led to the (honourable) resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale in 1954:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crichel_Down_affair

33. Sevillista

@falco

You are right.

But the problem comes, as Bob B says, from Ministers not wanting to explore the risks (and plain ignoring the advice of civil servants as Gove clearly did) as they “know” the right answer and also want to get as many radical and unpopular decisions through while there is limited scrutiny and they can get away with a “blame Labour” argument.

It makes for poor administration and poor decision-making driven solely by what Ministers are doing.

Maybe this is what “importing a (big) business ethos into the civil service” means -civil servants becoming yes men who systematically under estimate and ignore risks and don’t take prudent action to minimise them.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why is our new government so accident-prone? http://bit.ly/9VNTIT

  2. fljf

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    RT @libcon: Why is our new government so accident-prone? http://bit.ly/9VNTIT – The clues are in the words 'new' and 'government'

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