Tuesday, October 31, 2006
The Conspiracy Of Optimism
Yesterday I attended another spit-roast. This time it was Helen Ghosh, Permanent Sec at Defra, hauled before the Public Accounts Committee to explain the fiasco at the Rural Payments Agency (see this blog).
As she squirmed and wriggled over the flames, she confessed to many of the old sins: spending zillions on a system that doesn't work, missing her Gershon cuts targets, incurring a huge fine from the EU, and wreaking financial havoc on thousands of civilian bystanders (in this case farmers). Bad enough. But she also blurted out the sin of the day: The Conspiracy of Optimism.
It works like this. She claims the central reason for this whole cock-up was that RPA management were far too optimistic about their ability to deliver, and as problems mounted failed to recognise the light in the tunnel as an oncoming train. What's more, to save time, they'd "de-scoped" their new IT system to remove its management information functions, so they were driving blind.
Now given that this was a quango attempting to develop and implement a brand new IT-intensive farm payments system at the same time as Gershon cutting 45% (!) of its staff, you might have expected that Defra mandarins would have kept a pretty close eye on things. Because surely everybody knows by now that your typical quango can't even tie its own shoelaces, let alone implement the most wildly difficult new agricultural support system in the history of the world (the "dynamic hybrid" system).
But no. Instead of challenging the RPA's own upbeat progress reports, senior Defra management were only too happy to go along with the idea and relay the good news to ministers. The Conspiracy of Optimism.
But surely, I hear you exclaim, surely ministers would have asked the right questions.
Ah, ministers. Poor innocent lambs. As Labour member Sadiq Khan was at pains to highlight, ministers were badly let down by fumbling bumbling hopeless civil servants. And not one has even been sacked (the RPA's ex-CEO was apparently summarily removed "for administrative reasons").
But he was only repeating the line already put out by the ministers themselves. Last week, chopped Defra minister Lord Bach said:
"My view is that the top management of the RPA was not up to the task. On March the 9th I was given advice that the bulk of payments would be made by the first few days of April. Five days later I was told there was no chance at all of such a thing happening.
I don't think that was satisfactory from senior civil servants whose job is to tell ministers the truth. I don't think they were deliberately trying to mislead me but there was a slight conspiracy of optimism."
So he and that dreadful horse woman are entirely innocent. The only difference being that she sacked him, while she herself went on to represent us all on the global stage.
This government will surely go down as one of the most incompetent in British history, and it's no surprise that the politicos are for ever trying to blame their civil servants. But it simply won't do.
That idea that ministers make policy and civil servants implement it totally fails to address real world situations like this. For it was ministers - not civil servants- who decided to adopt the most complex of the various new farm payment schemes offered by the EU (a path followed by only one other EU country), and it was ministers - not civil servants - who decided to impose those arbitrary Gershon cuts at the same time.
The real Conspiracy Of Optimism is among our Big Government politicos. As we can see so clearly in this case, it is they who still believe - despite all the evidence- that they can reorder Britain with their wildly ambitious top-down wishful thinking.
As we've blogged many times before, Britain doesn't need politicos dreaming up yet more pie in the sky "policy" ideas and then walking away from the impossibility of implementation.
Tesco government remains the only viable model.
Posted by Mike D at 9:28 am