Sunday 5 January 2014

Bacon and Hope's faith is a mystery

Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it
by Richard Bacon MP and Christopher Hope

As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, Richard Bacon has been an observer for years of the scandalous failures of our government in the UK. Not just an observer. An energetic and noble investigator as well.

In the first 12 chapters, he and Mr Hope tackle the gruesome Child Support Agency, the UK Passport Agency that couldn't issue passports, HM Treasury's tax credits fiasco, and nine more government failures.

They write clearly and authoritatively and it would be a pleasure to read their prose if it weren't for the fact that what we're reading is the story of how billions of pounds of public money have been wasted by the Executive – by Whitehall and the Ministers in political charge of Whitehall.

With 12 sets of raw material to work on, they then give themselves five chapters to do what it says in the title. That is, to explain why governments get things wrong and to suggest what we can do about it.

Messrs Bacon and Hope quote from a large number of studies of the problem. Again, they write very well. And it's a valuable service, hugely appreciated, to bring together so much of the literature in one place.

The many solutions proposed over the past 30 years or so are analysed with philosophical rigour, touching on the constraints of politics in a democracy. None of these proposals has worked – the same lurid mistakes carry on being made, Whitehall remains too often unbusinesslike and irresponsible.

Can Messrs Bacon and Hope succeed where everyone else has failed?

No. Regrettably.

In Chapter 13, which is devoted specifically to the failures of government IT, they tentatively suggest that "agile" software engineering methods might work better than "waterfall" methods. No. They might do better to consider Professor Sir Martyn Thomas's advice to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee – formalised languages.

And at the end of their tether , in Chapter 17, they assert that advances in behavioural psychology will improve the record of delivery by government. This desperate gesture is based on the fact that we humans share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and on the success of Whitehall's Behavioural Insights Team in improving the rate at which people in Devon pay tax by "nudging" them.

The Behavioural Insights Team (RIP) have made no suggestions what to do about the 12 chapters of Whitehall's delivery failures. No suggestions, at least, recorded by Messrs Bacon and Hope. Nor have any of the other behavioural psychologists they cite, the Thalers, Sunsteins and Kahnemans of this world. Bacon and Hope's faith is a mystery.

The National Audit Office reported that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs pay their contractors' invoices on the ASPIRE project even though they often don't know what the invoices are for. The contractors have been asked for a breakdown but they refuse to provide it. You don't need to be a behavioural psychologist nor a Nobel Prize-winning economist to know that this practice is unbusinesslike and irresponsible.

Arguably this practice, like the scores of derelictions in Bacon and Hope's first 12 chapters, amounts to misfeasance in public office. That is an offence. And prosecuting one or two of these offences might have a salutary effect while we're waiting to see what the chimpanzees can teach us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yet again a gem from you! I can read this and quickly understand the "book" is 400 pages long.....

But the serious point you highlight made is the "misfeasance in public office" why none held to account? And it still is happening as GDS / Cabinet Office fail to do research on new cost saving technologies instead try and do it all themselves as a "start up" a quote from their CTO in a tweet as they expand their "business" (as other departments contract?). This is not what government should be doing trying to reinvent a wheel already built? It is “professional misconduct” at minimum. Agree completely we need a prosecution…. just be grateful a guilty sentence is not being thrown to hungry dogs....

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