Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reforming Britain's secret state

In 1854 the Northcote-Trevelyan report essentially set out the model of Her Majesty's home civil service that is still used today. In good Victorian style, there there was to be a clear distinction and strict hierarchy between those who set policy, administrative staff, and those who merely conducted routine, "mechanical" tasks. The administrative staff worked directly with ministers, who were accountable to Parliament, but the civil servants of the administrative class were not accountable to ministers, but to the Civil Service Commission.

These were professional staff, who were unchanging even as ministers, governments and even political parties came and went. As a result it was agreed that these senior civil servants would conduct their business in secret, so as not to prejudice incoming governments against individuals who necessarily had would closely with their predecessors often developing policies that were directly contrary to the policies of the incoming administration. Although civil servants could not expect the more lucrative income of the private sector, there was both security and prestige. Senior civil servants could more or less guarantee that a grateful nation would reward them with
a knighthood and perhaps some other perquisites of being a full blooded member of the British establishment.

At the same time, the tradition grew of the senior civil servant being a "good all rounder" rather than a specialist. To a great degree the system worked well for as long as the business of the state was relatively limited. However the massive expansion of government after 1945 began to overwhelm the system, since it required a detailed and specialist knowledge. Whereas the French system, under L'Ecole National d'Administration, ENA, created skilled technocrats, Britain continued to rely on a stream of general arts graduates, albeit that these were almost entirely from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and the better English public schools.

Even as early as the 1960s, it was clear that the civil service were no longer up to the job. In 1963 there were only 19 trained economists working the British Treasury. Although there have been several attempts to reform the British administration, most aggressively under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the civil service has been exceptionally resistant to changes. It is widely recognised that the portrayal of the fictional civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, in "Yes, Minister!", as a manipulative uber-conservative determined to thwart rather than expedite the policies of his minister is exceptionally accurate.

And all of this business has been conducted in secret, for a long time under the explicit protection of the Official Secrets Act (1911). Increasingly the answer to the inadequacies of civil service administration was to create a separate QUANGO which would be staffed by specialists rather than the generalists of the administrative branch. Yet these QUANGOs are usually only indirectly accountable to Parliament for their expenditure of government money.

Therein lies the rub: accountability.

The tens of thousands of civil servants in any given ministry are not accountable to the minister who nominally supervises them, but to the Permanent Secretary- the senior civil servant- in any given department. Nevertheless, ministers are still theoretically constitutionally accountable to Parliament for the conduct of their ministry. In fact, in recent years, it is exceptionally rare for a minister to resign over such issues- after all they simply are not able to get to grips with an administration so large in the usually two or three years that they serve as a minister. As a result in reality the government administration of the United Kingdom is accountable to no one.

Meanwhile the cost of administration has skyrocketed. While still providing secure jobs, and of course the occasional knighthood, salaries have grown to levels that match or better those of the private sector. In addition the public sector pension rolls still offer index linked final salary pensions to retiring civil servants- and often these people are allowed to retire at 55 or even 50. Even when private sector pensions were relatively well funded, the UK had a pension deficit of about 30% - almost entirely as the result of the unfunded pension liabilities of the public sector.

In short the costs of the public sector has grown by orders of magnitude, while the quality of services delivered has not. The current situation is that the administration of the UK is both unaccountable and unaffordable.

Yet accountability begins with politicians and the electorate that pays for it all.

The cowardly refusal of the Labour government to release the minutes of the cabinet meetings that took the decision to go into Iraq is contemptible. The fact that Jack Straw can block their release under a piece of legislation named "The Freedom of Information Act" is truly Orwellian.

It is even more contemptible for the Conservative Opposition to support this move.

The Conservatives, no less than Labour, are unable to see the crisis of administration at the heart of the British Constitution. Both Labour and the Conservatives refuse to be held accountable for the decisions that they make: even such critical decisions as Peace or War. By supporting the continued secrecy concerning a decision that cost our country thirty three lives lost in combat and perhaps £20 billion (we are not allowed to know the full cost, but this is an estimate by Joseph Stiglitz), the Conservatives demonstrate their continued thrall to the secrecy of Sir Humphrey.

The lack of accountability at all levels of this secret state has wasted truly gigantic sums of money. The waste of over £13 billion on an unworkable and unnecessary NHS information system is a case in point, as is the waste of billions more at the old Ministry of Agriculture. It is blindingly obvious that public administration in the United Kingdom is in need of complete reform- and yet the Conservatives by their failure to understand that accountability is at the heart of the crisis, are already proving that they intend to use the same old broken methods to try to govern the country.

It won't work.

The size of the state is already unarguably too large, and after the acquisition of the banking sector under Labour, it can not even be sustainably financed.

Retrenchment is inevitable- and that should begin with constitutional accountability and administrative reform. Only the Liberal Democrats seem to recognise that putting a different party in charge of the same structure will not bring about the change that Britain needs.

Reform is a task that can be put off no longer, if we are to avoid bankrupting the whole country.


Brom said...

Do you actually think the Lib Dems would commit themselves to reducing the size of the state if they got in power?

I've heard very little on this from the Lib Dems. I know a few years ago (I think it was when Kennedy was leader) they proposed to reduce the number of government departments. But that's it really. Am I wrong?

Cicero said...

Well, Vince Cable has spoken of capping the size of the public sector as a percentage of the economy, and we are still committed to the abolition of the DTi, (and the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office in their current forms). We would remove large parts of several government departments from Whitehall and put them under local control. So I think we can say that there are quite detailed polices to reduce centralisation and shrink the size of the state.

Newmania said...

So I think we can say that there are quite detailed polices to reduce centralisation and shrink the size of the state.

Oh dear me ,* wipes tears of mirth*...The Conservative Party have a history of trying to control the size of the state usually in the teeth of criticism from Labour and the Liberal Party.

Cicero said...

Well, Newmania- that is in the teeth of some actual facts. The repeated weakening of local councils by Conservative governments, for example- the creation of nonesense like "The County of Avon" perhaps. The removal of large parts of local budgets and centralisation on Whitehall. These were actual policies imposed by Conservatives. So *tears of mirth*- is just typical arrogance and a direct contradiction of the truth.