This week Damian McBride, sometime Treasury communications leader and later special advisor to Gordon Brown, published an article in Prospect magazine entitled “Not fit for purpose”. McBride claims that the policy failures and fiascos which have been discussed at length in books published this year such as Anthony King’s and Ivor Crewe’s “The blunders of our governments”[i] and Richard Bacon’s and Christopher Hope’s “Conundrum”[ii] are principally the result of the civil service being out of touch, of there being too few people among the upper echelons of the service who are female, young, from working class origins, from regions far from London, not from expensive schools and universities, or indeed who have not previously worked in the Treasury. Overcoming the narrowness of recruitment will, he claims, make the civil service more meritocratic and more “fit for purpose”.
But let’s unpack that claim. McBride’s diagnosis is that the civil service being “out of touch” is the problem that explains both civil service timidity in advising ministers and the very opposite problem, which he thinks is just as important, of civil servants “being allowed to push things through without sufficient checks from ministers or their advisors”. Quite how timidity and unaccountable railroading co-exist in the same tier of civil servants, McBride doesn’t explain. Are the same civil servants guilty of both things? On the same policies? Nor does he explain clearly why they are both supposed to be the result of the same underlying problem.
The call for “representative bureaucracy” is a good one. Few people, I hope, would disagree with it. McBride is quite right that the upper tiers of the civil service are still not open enough, although even he is forced to admit that the demographic statistics look a great deal more civilised than they did even fifteen years ago.
But the sensible argument for a more representative bureaucracy is an argument about simple justice. We want diversity and equality of opportunity for their own sake.
McBride doesn’t offer any evidence that a narrow and shallow pool of recruits to the upper tier of the civil service is what really explains the collapse of the west coast mainline franchise, or the training credits fiasco or the protracted muddle of tax credits or the long series of IT projects which have been delayed, abandoned, overrun their budgets or just failed to provide workable systems. That’s because there just is no evidence that this was the problem.
What really lies behind the weakness of the British civil service is much less about the quality of the personnel and much more to do with the system in which the individuals have to work. Lack of institutional memory at the top due to the constant churn of staff, feeble capacity for serious client-side programme management, poor understanding of how rail or IT industries really work, weak capacities for understanding the drivers of costs, the toleration for scope creep, lack of sufficient span of control for programme managers, ministerial tendencies toward spasmodic but brief efforts in micro-management… all these things are the product of informal institutions in the way that the service is organised and collective capabilities are cultivated, and also of the more fundamental relationship with ministers and ministerial power. Perhaps unsurprisingly in someone who has been a special advisor, McBride never really mentions ministers or their expectations, and never considers the ways in which they work might be contributing to poor policy performance.
The same argument applies to ministers just as well as it does to civil servants. Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains show that although the coalition government has brought more women into ministerial posts, on its own that won’t make policies that benefit women any more likely to be implemented successfully, not least while the government is doing things that run contrary to many women’s interests.
McBride has fallen into the ancient error in management thinking that what we most need to do to improve the running of an organisation is for the managers to change the people and get a better lot. The civil service is like many other organisations which are performing poorly. A majority of the staff would work more effectively if the systems were changed, which cultivate collective capabilities. We want different staff for reasons of equality of opportunity, not because that alone would make for fewer fiascos. Changing the people might do something for justice, diversity and equality. But on its own it will do nothing very much for performance. To take McBride’s examples, where civil servants are too fearful to provide ministers with candid advice, people with different accents won’t necessarily have any less fear of the consequences if we do nothing to address what is commonly called the “public service bargain” which orders the relationship between civil servants and ministers. Overly ambitious, vaguely specified schemes and misdesigned procurement systems for National Health Service IT systems and the failure to control an organisation that wasted billions before being wound up were not the result of lack of diversity in recruitment. Whatever went wrong on universal credit that led Iain Duncan Smith to blame his civil servants – and it is hard not to have the suspicion from the information that has been aired in the press that the brief from ministers may not have been sufficiently clear, whatever fault may also have lain with the officials for their understanding of what would be needed for a workable IT system for so ambitious a programme – was not the result of too many ex-Treasury types in the Department of Work and Pensions.
McBride’s assertion that until the top civil service looks more like the rest of Britain “miscalculations like the bedroom tax and Help to Buy will simply keep happening” is completely lacking in any account of just how the one would be the principal cause of the other. It just isn’t the case that whatever “common sense” more common people might bring to government, that alone would enable those commoner people better to understand IT or rail franchising or complex procurement or to ask tougher, more probing questions about costs or complicated consortia for big programmes. And certainly common sense alone won’t give civil servants the confidence, where they lack it, to speak truth to powerful ministers or, dare one say it in this context, to their special advisors.
No, diversity and equality in the civil service is something we should care about it for its own sake. Reforming the civil service in ways that would improve its performance requires something other than a change of personnel. It might also require a change in the relationship with politicians and their political appointees. But perhaps Mr McBride isn’t ready yet to address that problem.
[i] Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, 2013, The blunders of our governments, London: OneWorld.
[ii] Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope, 2013, Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it, London: Biteback.