Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Cult Of The Amateur


So Charles Clarke can't resign because- setting aside Straw and Blunkers- he's the only one with the requisite experience to sort out the mess. His plan is to bullet a few Civil Servants instead. Just like the Commissar did to poor Crisp.

But hang on...following the same logic, shouldn't the Civil Servants be even better qualified to sort out the mess? After all, Clarke's so-called experience only actually boils down to 16 months, whereas those officials must have years.

Well actually it isn't quite like that, as was vividly displayed at Wednesday's PAC probe into the whole appalling fiasco (see this blog).

The current Permanent Secretary at the Home Office is Sir David Normington KCB. He's certainly a bright man, having been educated at Corpus Christi, Oxford; and he's got an entire career's worth of Civil Service experience behind him. But he's actually only been at the HO for three months, having been drafted in by Clarke from the DfES which he'd headed for...ooh...all of four years. Prior to 1995 he was at the Department of Employment. So he knows even less about the Home Office biz than Clarke.

Sir David's predecessor was Sir John Gieve KCB, who was eased out by Clarke following a whole series of unfortunate discombobulations- from the thousand Awol foreign convicts and those screwed up HO finances, to all that awkward stuff with lover-boy Blunkers. But Gieve hadn't got much HO experience either, having been in post for only four years. Before that he'd headed a directorate at the Treasury, and the word is that he only went to the HO as a consolation prize for not getting the top Treasury job. He's now gone off to the Bank of England as Deputy Governor in charge of financial stability(!). Educated at Charterhouse and New College, Oxford, he too is a bright man who has spent his entire career in the Service.

Now you may be detecting a bit of a pattern here. And actually these two knights have something else in common as well: they both applied for, and failed to get, the post of Cabinet Secretary. So both are now in jobs that are consolation prizes.

Which brings us to the cult of the amateur, one of the longest standing criticisms of the British mandarinate. As the Fulton Report concluded right back in 1965: "administrative class officials...move too frequently from job to job with no specific professional education or formal training for their work. The Service lacks skilled managers...most of the work of most Senior Civil Servants is not managerial, but rather relates to matters such as the preparation of explanatory briefs and answers to parliamentary questions...there is not enough contact between the Civil Service and the rest of the community...because Civil Servants are expected to spend their entire working lives in the Service..."

You might have thought that innumerable reports and reorganisations over the subsequent forty years would have changed the situation. But you'd be wrong.

Nobody's saying Sirs David and John are not high quality guys. But neither are remotely qualified to manage a complex £13bn pa organisation of 73,000 people dealing with the dirty nuts and bolts business of keeping our streets safe. And it's a fair bet they have no real interest in doing so.

Oxbridge grads just don't join the administrative grades of the Civil Service to manage large organisations: as I can vouch from personal experience, they join because they want the intellectual challenge and excitement of shaping national policy. And being stuck in one department learning how all the nuts and bolts fit together is not the way such careers get developed. These are big picture men who want to end up sitting at the PM's elbow, not traipsing round Britain's sink estates visiting a load of poxy probation officers in the drizzle.

We've said it before, but most successful private sector businesses don't work that way. They are invariably headed by people who know their industries backwards, are enthusiasts for the details, and have often spent their entire careers with one company working their way up from pretty close to the bottom. Terry Leahy at Tesco, John Bond at HSBC, and John Brown at BP are all one-company men.

The cult of the amateur lives on in our Civil Service. One more reason why the state should stop trying to manage everything.

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