Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



  1.  Traditionally the UK system of government has been thought of as well-run and efficiently organised, and a suitable model for exporting to other countries, but we need to recognise that in the last 20 years UK policy-making has suffered from a recurring tendency to make large-scale mistakes which can subsequently only be remedied at considerable cost. Any possible listing of entries for this category in this period is intensely controversial, but my tentative listing would include:

    —  the introduction and subsequent scrapping of the poll tax 1990-92;

    —  many major IT projects in the public sector (including the attempted computerisation of London Ambulance Service in the mid-1990s; the collapse of the Post Office/Benefits Agency POCLE project 1995-2000; the Passport Office's new PFI project with Siemens Business Systems 1996-99; the NISR2 contract between the Contributions Agency and Andersen Consulting 1996-2000; and so on);

    —  some very substantial MOD procurements (including Trident, ordered in 1982, but paid for mainly in 1993-94, when its intended target had largely disappeared; and the Eurofighter);

    —  many key regulatory issues (notably the handling of the BSE crisis, as explored in the Phillips report, and the long-running delay in Oftel securing from British Telecom unmetered internet access in the UK);

    —  aspects of the privatisation and PFI programmes (including under-pricing of initial sales such as British Telecom and British Gas; under-valuation of some railway assets sold in trade sales; the structure of the privatised railways; and the failure to protect the public sector from PFI deals being refinanced without gains for tax payers);

    —  some major commitments by publicly funded bodies (including the THORP re-processing plant; and the Dome); and

    —  current slow progress on putting government on the Web (which entails retaining high cost administrative systems for no good reason: for instance, there are still 10,000 civil servants in Inland Revenue who do nothing else but key in paper forms to IR databases).

  The cumulative direct bill for most of these mistakes runs into billions of pounds of public money, while others have long-run adverse implications for economic growth and development. To a great extent these problems reflect broad defects in the political system (such as the "fastest law in the West" style of Westminster legislation, inadequate checks and balances in the policy process, and the very large scale of decision-making in the UK before devolution and in England subsequently), but they also suggest that there are major structural problems with the civil service and its arrangements for advising ministers.

  2.  One key problem is that the civil service structure and personnel systems are still set up on early twentieth century lines as a generalist, bi-partisan administration, principally to handle issues such as government succession and policy succession which are organised in left/right terms, but many current political issues do not fit neatly into left/right categories. Instead they are "risk" issues, requiring a more technical approach and more systematic methods for determining policy options and selecting a robust way forward.

  The UK system for handling civil service interactions with politicians has a very weakly-defined boundary between "policy" issues which are appropriate matters of political determination, and "expert" aspects of policy implementation where political interventions are inappropriate. A government which decides to commit strongly to making any "expert" judgement as an article of faith can in effect establish that as a "political" matter, about which civil servants cannot then raise issues or queries. For instance, the visitor target for the Dome was set at 12 million people, even though no UK attraction has ever pulled in more than 4.5 million people in a year: this target was then fetishised as a government commitment for the lifetime of the decision-making process. Planning proceeded on the presumption that the target must be met—without any sensitivity analysis of what would happen financially or in marketing terms if it was missed.


  3.  The UK civil service is increasingly unusual in comparison with other advanced industrial countries in:

    —  recruiting for life-long career paths straight from undergraduate courses; and

    —  having a relatively low proportion of people with post-graduate education, either at Masters or PhD level in policy-relevant ranks and positions;

    —  investing very little in the graduate education of people heading into the senior civil service (especially by comparison with investments made in secondments to the private sector).

  The consequence is that most senior British civil servants have a pretty weak educational background by modern professional standards. They will rarely have had an opportunity to stretch their intellectual capabilities and will instead be offering advice based on a very distant undergraduate education (often not in a relevant subject for modern policy-making issues), a lifetime working from cardboard files, and a very few poorly organized and academically uncertified in-service training courses. This is an inadequate approach for securing expertise at the top, and there is no sign that recent civil service reforms will address this issue. For instance, the civil service had no corporate targets for graduate education or securing the necessary expertise at the top to handle risk issues.

  4.  The UK civil service is very poorly organized at the core to handle either risk issues or the development of modernization. The Cabinet Office has a byzantine internal structure of many small units, most of whose work cross-cuts each other, and which has very weak and hard to follow central co-ordination by senior staff or by ministers. Most civil servants even at senior level could not be expected to understand how the Cabinet Office works, or where lines of responsibility run for strategic development of the civil service rests. The division of functions between Treasury and the Cabinet Office is also opaque and serious problems have already occurred—for instance the non-progress on electronic transactions targets, which barely featured in the first comprehensive spending review targets.

  5.  The development of "joined-up" governance has made a small amount of progress, but appears to have reached some kind of hiatus. The immediate prospects are for a reconfiguration of Whitehall departments on "client-group" lines in an implicit recognition that departmental and ministerial fiefdoms are too strong for cross-departmental efforts to have much impact.

December 2000


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