Monday 14 January 2013

Whitehall – front page misfeasance

... put the departments of state out to tender ...

This morning's Times newspaper leads with:
No, Minister: Whitehall in ‘worst’ crisis

Roland Watson, Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson
Published at 12:01AM, January 14 2013

An increasingly bitter power struggle between ministers and mandarins is poisoning relations across Whitehall and threatening to derail David Cameron’s reforms, The Times has learnt.

Tension over the pace and scale of coalition policy has given way to outright mistrust in some departments with ministers feeling blocked by an unwieldy and unwilling Civil Service.

One Tory Cabinet minister said that the working relationship was akin to both sides waging a permanent “cold war” ...
The Times have conducted an investigation they say involving "dozens of ministers, past and present", and the article names David Cameron, Michael Gove, Eric Pickles, Francis Maude, Tony Blair, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield and Nick Herbert. Whitehall is in a power struggle with Westminster, apparently – not news to DMossEsq readers – and accuses Whitehall of being obstructive, untrustworthy and in need of reform. There is an accompanying editorial, Office Politics.

The public administration bubble was identified in OBITUARY: Whitehall 1947-2012. Is the bubble now, as predicted, bursting before our eyes?


Updated 14:30:

The Times has published a longer version of the report on its investigation, A covert war conducted with the utmost courtesy.

Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph thinks that Whitehall aren't to blame, it's all the politicians' fault, Ministers v Whitehall: Don't let the politicians duck their responsibility.

Some thoughts
There is nothing new about the power struggle between Westminster and Whitehall. It is 60 years since Professor GW Keeton published The Passing of Parliament in which he declared that Whitehall had won, and now exists in a state of “administrative lawlessness”, beyond the reach of either Parliament or the common law, where it behaves remarkably like the Stuart kings we rebelled against before.

The Times don't seem to have noticed but Francis Maude does have a plan to improve public administration which revolves around the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG). Will it work?

Mr Maude is preyed upon by the advocates of making public services digital by default. Fire public servants, replace them with computers, deal with the public over the web, emulate Amazon, PayPal/eBay, Google and Facebook and the problems of public administration will be solved. That’s the suggestion and it’s nothing but infantile, credulous, inane, quasi-religious fervour. That part of the plan is bound to fail. Good job, too. Otherwise, we would end up being governed by Amazon, PayPal/eBay, Google and Facebook, they would have become part of the Constitution and we would be no better off.

Part of the problem with Whitehall is centralisation. Mr Maude’s plan involves more of the same – more centralisation. Power would be called in from the satrapies which are the departments of state, and concentrated in ERG. That would make matters worse. Not better. It looks like a Whitehall suggestion in response to the threat of localism. So one suggestion is, try more localism. Much more localism.

Whitehall is a monopoly. That is one of the problems. No incentive to compete, nothing to drive up quality, nothing to keep prices down. How should Mr Maude introduce competition? One suggestion – put the departments of state out to tender. Perhaps the US would win the contract to run the Department for Business. Who would get the Treasury? Perhaps Hong Kong? Singapore? New Zealand? Israel to run the Ministry of Defence. And so on.

Localism and competition – two matters for debate.

One element of Mr Maude’s plan, or what should be his plan, has been debated enough. We know the answer. Openness. Public money is public. Public servants are public. The powers of the Freedom of Information Act should be increased and enforced. That would be a start, at least, on the road to Parliament getting back control of Whitehall and of our public administration.



frugal said...

This from a local councillor three years ago;
"You appear to have a false impression of exactly what a councillor can do. We are an elected body of people yes, but unless at the very top of council, we can only sit on committees and ask what it is that the civil servants in departments are doing. Our ability to influence and change policies that the council is following is limited at best."

The same thing appears to be happening with governments, which is choking Britain.
I don't think many people realise the state of affairs as it stands.
People want action, but unless someone in office of any colour tackles the issue, any "conviction" politicians simply will not make a difference to the status quo.

David Moss said...

Thank you for that comment, Frugal. I have updated the article now and added a reference to localism.

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