Published August 2, 2012
The Cabinet Office is commissioning research to look at the way ministers, senior civil servants and political appointees function in other countries (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/looking-abroad-next-steps-civil-service-reform-programme). The list includes countries that replace the senior ranks with every change of elected leadership. This is already being interpreted as a threat to civil service neutrality and a victory for Steve Hilton who had been arguing for dramatic reductions in Whitehall before peddling off into the sunset.
But there is a serious point to be discussed. For years, there have been complaints about the politicisation of the civil service. Tony Benn and other Labour ministers in the 60s and 70s had the impression that civil servants were a conservative force at best, and a Conservative one on some occasions. To get to the top under Thatcher, you needed to be ‘one of us’ or to be a can-do official. Being cautious, balanced and neutral doesn’t win you friends amongst current ministers. So, why not make the top ranks explicitly political appointments, as in the US and France?
The argument is that a neutral civil service has a particular value. But what is that? Are we really saying that civil servants are objective, unbiased and impartial in some way? Are they really so superhuman that they can dismiss from their minds anything other than the national interest or some other higher purpose? Or should we be just a little more honest? Ed Miliband’s dad, Ralph, was very clear that the upper reaches of the civil service was not the neutral force it claims – a recent rereading of ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ was very instructive.
And, if they are indeed so neutral and acting in pursuit of some lofty purpose, why are they so anxious that their advice is not open to us to read? Why should they want to keep so much of their work exempt under the Freedom of Information Act? Is their lobbying for secrecy not self-interested and indicative of their inability to be as neutral as they claim?
Published July 24, 2012
The publication this morning of the First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results (a catchy title no doubt tested by the Behavioural Insights Team for its impact on our levels of happiness) is cause for some amusement (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_272294.pdf). While the results are presented in detail, the one thing not properly addressed in the material, or in any of the discussion of it so far, is ‘so what?’ What on earth is to be done with the ‘knowledge’ that people are happier in one part of the country than in others, or that you were more likely to have felt anxious yesterday if you classified yourself as Arab? What are the policy options available?
But there is a worrying aspect to this. Alongside the recent paper on the use of randomised controlled trials in policy making (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/TLA-1906126.pdf), there is the prospect of ‘happiness’ experiments. Do policy initiatives affect the results next year? Leave aside all the problems of attributing causation, there must be someone in Whitehall even now adding happiness into the great calculating machines that they run at the Treasury to model monetary and fiscal policy.
I have been reading a number of works recently that take an ethnographic approach to the study of the state and its works. We can anticipate furious government activity, each department developing its own contribution to improving happiness unrelated to the activities of all other government departments. These will all have conflicting implications and impacts. And they will affect very little. Indeed, those coordinating the activities of the state will be us. We will be left to cope and adapt as the frantic activity continues around us. As Tess Lea at Sydney has recently suggested, if you want to see anarchy, watch the state and its bureaucracy in action.
Published July 23, 2012
In the last few days, a number of elderly Kenyans have taken their case against the British government to the High Court. Against legal objections and despite problems accessing all the relevant records, justice might be done. The records, it appears, were taken from Kenya at independence and deposited in the Foreign Office, alongside those from a number of other former colonies. But the records are there and can be retrieved.
At the same time, we hear from the Information Commissioner that civil servants, long opposed to the Freedom of Information Act, might be using their private email addresses and other ways of avoiding records being kept of their exchanges. Cabinet Secretaries, past and present, are reluctant to release documents to the Chilcott Inquiry on Iraq. In short, a culture of secrecy persists in the corridors of power despite the political platforms of all major parties.
Whitehall, that paragon of good government! Sometimes it stinks.
Published June 30, 2012
The establishment is under severe pressure. Politicians and press barons (and senior police officers, come to that) are too familiar with one another. Tax dodgers are morally repugnant. Bankers sell dogey products and, now, fiddle their books and manipulate interest rates. Desparate efforts to divert attention to benefit cheats have had little effect on the main thread of news and debate. And now we have more or less subtle efforts to suggest that the current banking crisis of legitimacy is a product of ‘spivs and gamblers’. The suggestion is that, since the 1980s, working class lads have been alowed in to the once august world of the City. One old timer on the radio told stories of the past where your word was your bond. Chaps just didn’t cheat. These working class oiks have got into the banks and just don’t know how to behave. Nauseous stuff.
And now we have an urgent independent review (if it is urgent, why did it take days to announce?). We don’t know who will lead this review as yet. Anyone want to take bets – a member of the establishment, old school, probably with banking experience. But definitely ‘one of us’, in Thatcher’s words.
Published June 27, 2012
The rate at which the Tories develop new policies, provoke reaction, back peddle and then, later, claim they just wanted to start a debate is frankly comical. The latest, Cameron’s assault on the poor was particularly grotesque, coming after and covering up the tax dodging habits of the well heeled. Steve Bell in The Guardian has hit the nail on the head in his recent If… cartoons. Tory policy on welfare is little more than: ‘Fack orff and get your own silver spoon’.
I watched the first episode of The Thick Of It again last night, inspired by Gove and Cameron doing cartwheels. And it does seem to me they must work in pretty much this manner. Policy made on the hoof. No wonder Hilton left to take a year off and get away from the insanity of it all. (But then he was not much better. We are told that he has suggested the civil service be reduced to about 4,000. After all, the Victorians ran an empire covering a third of the globe with that number of civil servants.)
It does appear that the Tories are agitated, twitching and flinching at the slightest noise and always acting in haste. ADHD, perhaps? Or more likely this is the behaviour we should expect of good old Bullingdon Club members – just sober and bored.
Published June 15, 2012
We have been treated to the unedifying sight of senior politicians admitting to cosy relationships with Murdoch and beginning to talk about the need for reform. Some of the messages flowing between Rebecca Brooks and David Cameron (and doubtless the same was true with Blair, Brown etc) suggest that News Corporation was an arm of government (and similar comments have been made in recent articles in the New York Review of Books) – ‘we’ must get the welfare reform bill through parliament, for example.
I wonder whether the government’s relationships with senior bankers would stand up to this sort of close scrutiny as well? Osborne certainly bleats on about the need to ensure that the UK is a good place for international financial institutions to call home. Perhaps they also talk in terms of ‘we’? And what of the arms industry and the MoD?
In Greece, at least they know they are being ruled by unelected technocrats at the moment. Heaven help them if they dare elect a government that acts in their interests at the weekend (and the same might go for the French as well!). Meanwhile we suffer under a very British technocracy.
Published May 2, 2012
Watching Newsnight last night and reading some of the discussion in the papers this morning, the select committee report on Murdoch and phone hacking has stirred some people up. And, on the whole, the line seems to be that the report would be much more powerful if it were a unanimous report, rather than split over the more provocative conclusions. As well as some of those involved and many media pundits, Tony Wright, the former chair of the Public Administration committee, has suggested this is much the best way to proceed. Ofcom could read their report and draw their own conclusions. There is probably something in this. And debate since has been diverted from the content of the rest of the report. The only people who will be happy about this include Murdoch and Louise Mensch, one Tory MP who likes the spotlight.
But this all reminds me of a famous quote from an MP called Sir Hugh Rossi who was a chair of the Environment Select Committee in the 1980s. His committee decided:
“as an act of conscious policy, not to become involved in topics which are the subject of major political controversy or which are likely to be debated on the floor of the House in any event. Instead we decided to identify and concentrate on areas of public concern where the political parties had not defined their attitudes and in which it appeared that ministers had not much time to investigate in depth for themselves. In this way we would enhance our prospects of producing unanimous all-party reports which would thereby carry conviction and influence the decision-making process.” (cited in Butler et al (1994), Failure in British Government: the politics of the Poll Tax)
His committee failed to investigate the Poll Tax! Too contentious!
What is the point of committees and politicians if they avoid contentious issues for the sake of unanimity?