Monday 31 December 2012

OBITUARY: Whitehall 1947-2012

Some emperors driven mad by absolute power appoint their horse a senator.
While others create ERG.

This time last year Sir-Gus-now-Lord O'Donnell was still Cabinet Secretary, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and head of the home civil service. He stood down on 31 December 2011.

The month before, Sir Richard Mottram had published an article in Public Servant magazine, Whitehall shake-up – not all good news.

Sir Richard mentioned a number of the abiding problems faced by Whitehall, problems which existed when Sir Gus took over and which had still not been solved six years later. Among others, how do you govern Whitehall? The big central government departments look like independent satrapies. Silo government. Who, if anyone, is in charge? According to Sir Richard:
... the coalition government has given increasing priority to improving the efficiency of the civil service and the wider public service under a Cabinet Office group ...
The "Cabinet Office group" in question is the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG):
Efficiency, Reform and Growth (ERG), established in 2010 as the Efficiency and Reform Group, is part of the Cabinet Office, which works in partnership with HM Treasury to form the corporate centre for UK Government. Its objectives are to reform the way government works and to support the transformation of government services by both driving cost savings and focusing on growth to build a platform to enhance public services.
Take a step back.

Professor GW Keeton was Dean of the Faculty of Laws at University College, London. In 1952 he published his book The Passing of Parliament, in which he expressed his amazement that the UK had an army of a million public servants. 60 years later the army has swollen to nearer six million. Power has been wrested by Whitehall from parliament. That was easy. Whitehall exists in a state of "administrative lawlessness" as Keeton called it. And money has been wrested from the people – Whitehall now commands a budget of about £700 billion p.a. It is a mercy that Prof Keeton didn't live to see that statistic. And that he never saw the craven media who today regard that as the minimum ante you have to put up to get into the government game.

Whitehall's success – six million staff and an annual income of £700 billion – bespeaks a ruthlessly rapacious cuckoo in the nest of the State. We are used to hearing about property bubbles and stock market bubbles and credit bubbles. But look at public expenditure. In 2000-01 total managed expenditure stood at £443.7 billion. By 2009-10 it had risen to £705.6 billion. Up 59% in real terms in 10 years with no commensurate improvement in outcomes. We're living in the midst of a public administration bubble along with all the other bubbles and like all the other bubbles it's got to burst.

How will it end?

No need to guess. Just open your eyes and look. Circumspice, as the Romans would say.

Some emperors driven mad by absolute power appoint their horse a senator. While others create ERG.

It's a very modern organisation, ERG, boasting the advantages of the very latest in management theory. ERG doesn't have departments or offices or desks or even units. It has clusters. Five of them. It comprises Corporate, Efficiency, Transformation, Growth and Projects clusters.

The Transformation cluster is headed by ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken, the Executive Director of Digital, and ex-Rothschild man Ed Welsh, the Executive Director of Commercial Models. You couldn't make it up, you might think. But someone did.

In the decadent and degenerate hands of the Transformation cluster, "government" means making all public services digital by default. Which means making them all available on the web, and only on the web. The fact that about 10 million members of the public have never used the web and will become excluded by default doesn't deter the Transformation cluster. Those members of the public are just people. Whereas transformational government deals only with neatly governable electronic IDs. Neither is the Transformation cluster deterred by the fact that the web is a very dangerous place to be – it's the web which is important, not the people. The UK is, incidentally, according to the police, losing the war on cyber crime.

Judging by his published thoughts, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken, regardless of the facts, in defiance of the facts, is impelled by a peculiar cluster of objectives: a weakness for whizzy graphics applications; admiration for NSTIC, the US National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace; devotion to Google; an obsession with making the UK more like Estonia; and a mystical belief in the redemptive properties of the web – "GOV.UK is not Government on the Internet", he says inscrutably, "but of the Internet".

Martha 'digital by default' Lane Fox CBE, 14 October 2010:

Make Directgov [= the Transformation cluster/GOV.UK] the government front end for all departments' transactional online services to citizens and businesses, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens' experience of key transactions.

Change the model of government online publishing, by putting a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels ...

Appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spending.

I strongly suggest that the core Directgov team concentrates on service quality and that it should be the "citizens' champion with sharp teeth" for transactional service delivery.

Directgov should own the citizen experience of digital public services and be tasked with driving a 'service culture' across government which could, for example, challenge any policy and practice that undermines good service design.

It seems to me that the time is now to use the Internet to shift the lead in the design of services from the policy and legal teams to the end users.

Directgov SWAT teams ... should be given a remit to support and challenge departments and agencies ... We must give these SWAT teams the necessary support to challenge any policy and legal barriers which stop services being designed around user needs.

A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

Ultimately, departments should stop publishing to their own websites, and instead produce only content commissioned by this central commissioning team.

Ultimately it makes sense to the user for all Government digital services to reside under a single brand ...

... leadership on the digital communications and services agenda in the centre is too fragmented. I recommend that all digital teams in the Cabinet Office - including Digital Delivery, Digital Engagement and Directgov - are brought together under a new CEO for Digital.

This person should have the controls and powers to gain absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services ... and the power to direct all government online spend.

The CEO for Digital should also have the controls and powers to direct set and enforce standards across government departments ...
In order to make public services digital by default ERG must equip everyone with an electronic ID. Their Identity Assurance Programme is doomed to failure. That failure guarantees the failure of digital-by-default in general and it guarantees the failure of DWP's Universal Credit in particular.

DWP is one of our most powerful satrapies. The Department for Work and Pensions is the biggest-spending department in Whitehall.

Nevertheless, in the enervated sickness of the public administration bubble, the mighty DWP has ceded power to ERG.

DWP aren't alone. Ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's GOV.UK (of which, more later) is sometimes criticised as a mere re-branding of Whitehall. Every central government department of state is supposed to give up its own website. Each departmental website is to be subsumed by a single government domain, This process of enfeeblement is endorsed by Sir Gus's successors, Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake, of whom you may have heard, and Richard Heaton, of whom you won't (apart, perhaps, from his re-Tweeting mistake).

The criticism couldn't be wronger. This is de-branding or dis-branding or un-branding. The identities of the separate satrapies are being erased and replaced by a single, amorphous, anonymous, Whitehall cloud without personality or attachment or allegiance or mission – no corp for there to be an esprit de.

Our very own Pravda Izvestia, the Transformation cluster will be the only publisher of all government news.

It is also to have the right of veto over policy – no policy which impairs the "user experience" of GOV.UK will be countenanced.

"Our design and creative teams will ensure a simple, consistent and beautiful experience for all users", trills ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken. But what is a "user experience"? It's not clear. The term is undefined – a serious omission given that the user experience whatever it is, is the touchstone of the Transformation cluster's work. But whatever it is, if the Executive Director of Digital (see above) determines by whatever means that the user experience is in danger, then he is duty-bound to ignore any fuddy-duddy old policy-makers who get in his way.

Similarly, if any dusty old laws, e.g. the laws governing data-sharing between departments, prove obstructive, they are to be ignored or changed. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, considers these laws to be muddled myths that need to be "busted".

These powers and others are all granted to the Transformation cluster by Martha Lane Fox CBE who designed the new Constitution and who remains chairman of the advisory board.

GOV.UK. Is it a bubble? Is it a cloud?

Never mind which. It is insubstantial and will burst or blow away leaving nothing behind it. It is bursting and blowing away before your very eyes. Now. With not even a body left behind to rest in peace.

Not all good news, Sir Richard?

Look again at his article. The governance of Whitehall is only one of the issues he raises.

Sir Richard is also concerned to ensure that we have cabinet government as opposed to Tony Blair's sofa government. And he asks how the home civil service can have any influence over the Prime Minister if its head is not also the Cabinet Secretary. Most central government departments (HMRC, the UK's tax farmer, is a big exception) are headed by a secretary of state who is in turn a member of the Cabinet. The influence of the departments on their secretaries of state and, through them, on the Cabinet and the Prime Minister is presumably, in Sir Richard's eyes, insufficient.

One might equally ask how the Prime Minister can have any influence on Whitehall. That seems to be a question which exercises him, witness his description of Whitehall officials as the "enemies of enterprise".

The other major issue Sir Richard raises is effective career planning for senior civil servants.

That looks like one of those problems which will not be solved but will simply go away.

Why would anyone join the civil service now if policy is to be determined by the website designers in the Transformation cluster? Why would anyone join the civil service now if ERG encourages the service to ignore the law by stigmatising it as no more than a collection of muddled myths? They won't, and the career development of senior civil servants in that case is the least of our worries.

Undignified and irremediably inane, ERG spells the end of Whitehall. What happens next?

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