A burning desire to leave

Lord Birt (aka John Birt, former DG of the BBC and, later, advisor to Tony Blair) spoke at the university yesterday in their ‘Burning Issues’ series.  His title – ‘Why government is ineffective’.  I now understand something of the dislike (I am, perhaps, understating this) he provoked among many at the BBC and in government.  We were treated to one of the worst public lectures I have attended.

He started with a few anecdotes about his past and then listed his own CV.  This was followed by an idiot’s guide to strategy and the effective organisation (and it would fail as a first year undergraduate essay on the subject).  In fact, this was his ‘philosophy’ – it is what he uses all the time in all organisations!  So adaptable!  We were also told that the private equity model is his idea of how to transform public services.  Incoherent.  And we were now half way through!

The remainder of the lecture included a few remarks about the BBC (four times the resources required, no HR function when he took over) and then a list of the failings of the public sector, backed up by no evidence or anecdotes.  It was all confidential, he couldn’t name names.  But waste was ‘huge’.  There were ‘many’ examples of lack of strategic vision.  And his profound insights represented little more than a summary of some of the scripts of Yes Minister from the 1980s.  Which suggests that he achieved nothing in his years in government!!

His solution was straight out of the 1979-97 Thatcher/Major governments.  Disaggregation and competition.  But he had just criticised the civil service for lack of coherence and coordination in their response to difficult problems.  Really ill-thought out stuff.

But all delivered in that arrogant and softly spoken manner that earned him such contempt.  On getting home, I put on the episodes of The Thick Of It in which Julius Nicholson (a parody of John Birt and Michael Barber – then Blair’s Director of the Delivery Unit) waffles and blusters in an inane and supercilious way.

I felt like walking out and only wish it were the time and place to launch into one of Malcolm Tucker’s abusive tirades.

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5 Responses to “A burning desire to leave”


  1. 1 christina February 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    The most worrying thing being that a person with such a simplistic view of the way the world works has been placed in a position of such esteem and influence. No wonder the will of the government was frustrated when it was so influenced by the perspective of someone who seems to believe that it is both legitimate and desirable that the people at the top should be able to ‘drive through’ action without bothering themselves with the diversity of views, experience and perspective of those beneath them. Indeed precisely because, perhaps, he regards us all as beneath him. If those are the hallmarks of the enobled I am glad that I am a commoner.

  2. 2 David February 8, 2012 at 10:41 am

    If Christina is concerned about how such people reach such high positions, she should watch ‘Yes Minister’

  3. 3 LAD February 15, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    I can’t wait for his book…

  4. 4 mikerowe February 16, 2012 at 7:54 am

    He isn’t writing a book, is he? Michael Barber, his ally in advising Blair, wrote a book, ‘Instruction to Deliver: fighting to transform Britain’s public services’. It is rubbish. Do not read it, not least because his use of English is alarming. He is proud of the word “deliverology”, for example. If Birt is publishing something, I have little doubt my recommendation will be the same. Please tell me he isn’t.

  5. 5 LAD February 16, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Too late. 2002, John Birt, The Harder Path, £2.80 Amazon. Title was a little prophetic in relation to his walk from the speakers podium at UoL as opposed to the walk to it. As someone once said, everyone has a good book in them, unfortunately for JB, it wasn’t this one. Unfortunately for rest of us, it may yet come!


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