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.