Last week there was some publicity for the recommendations of the Better Government Initiative (further details at: http://www.bettergovernmentinitiative.co.uk/da/57700). Before bothering with what they said, a brief glance at the membership of this ‘initiative’ raises a few questions. Of 14 members, only two come with no direct Whitehall experience. One might also ask questions about other aspects of representativeness, but I will focus upon the fact that the list is dominated by people with a particular experience of the problems of government.
For such an experienced bunch, the answers reached seem simplistic, even naive. There are lots of recommendations that appear contradictory. For example, they argue for further outsourcing of service delivery but, in the next recommendation, acknowledge weaknesses in the performance management of service delivery agents and recommend the development of this expertise. There appears to be nothing sequential here. Surely, the former might best follow upon the latter? And where is the critical discussion of the weaknesses of the senior civil service? The suggestions for change are almost entirely about politicians, whether in government or in parliament, delivery agencies and others. We might learn very different lessons from, for example, the Child Support Agency or Foot and Mouth (or, going further back, the Poll Tax) if we were to engage in a similar critical review of the workings of the senior civil service, undertaken by senior managers of, for example, executive agencies.
It takes me back to another self-serving exercise: a speech to the Public Managment and Policy Association some years back. I won’t name the speaker, but the audience, again made up of many Mandarins, was told how wonderful they were, the proof being that they had never been subject to market testing and none of their work had been contracted out! I nearly spat my nicely chilled glass of white wine onto the person in front as I struggled to contain my laughter. And the senior mandarin next to me gave me a very snooty look.
Sir Humphrey is alive and well.