Friday, January 26, 2007

Tesco Government Still Urgently Needed

Spineless duds unfit for checkout work

This week it's the Home Office back in the headlines. But it isn't alone. Right across Whitehall, large parts of the government "machine" are in melt-down.

Some of the very worst problems are to be found among the so-called Executive Agencies. These are the supposedly arms length "independent" bodies set up by government departments to take responsibility for executing some specific task. They hardly ever work, and here on BOM we are forever reporting on the latest agency shambles (see posts on the Highways Agency, the National Patient Safety Agency, the Child Support Agency, etc etc).

It's especially important to understand why this happens, because our politicos- fed up to the back teeth with having to explain away the endless results of their own bungling- are desperate to set up even more of such arms length bodies.

The idea was set out in some detail by Tony's fave think tank the ippr last summer. We blogged their report here, contrasting their proposed flakey new "governance" structure for government, with the way that Tesco- along with every other successful real world operation- works.

As you may recall, the key element of ippr governance is to split policy-making from execution. It's a world where the politicos are only responsible for deciding policy, and it's civil servants who are responsible for everything else.

Of course, you only have to reflect on the idea for a couple of minutes to realise how daft it is: politicos would come up with even more ludicrous impractical policy ideas than they do already, and would be able to walk away from the inevitable fiascos that followed. It really would be "not me Guv" government, and we taxpaying voters would have even less control over the whole wobbly edifice than we have now.

Tesco shareholders always know exactly where the buck stops. Sir Terry Leahy can delegate as much authority to his managers as he likes. But he can never delegate responsibility for the results.

Last week we got a worm's eye view of exactly how differently things work in the world of executive agencies.

Johnston McNeill is the former Chief Executive 0f Rural Payments Agency. That's the agency that was responsible for the appalling cock-up in farm support payments (see previous blogs, here and here). It cost us taxpayers hundreds of millions, and it eventually cost him his job.

Last week he gave evidence to a closed session of the the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and they grilled him about the whole disaster. For supporters of Tesco government, the transcript makes fascinating reading (if you've got a spare hour or so).

The bottom line is that he was made to carry the can, even though most of the critical decisions that caused the disaster were taken by ministers:
  • It was ministers who decided the RPA should cut staff numbers from 3,500 to 1,900 at the same time as introducing the brand new untried untested EU "single payment system" (SPS). Even though they were warned in writing by the Defra Permanent Secretary that it was a "bridge too far" (Question 1140)
  • It was pretty clearly ministers who imposed RPA's disastrous new "task-based" work scheme rather than the old "claims-based" system (Q 1142). What that meant was that staff lost the capability of working through all aspects of an individual support claim, and were simply doing their own bit of a process driven workflow. In other words, jobs at the RPA were deskilled in a crude attempt to save money, and the old emphasis on "clients" was lost. Consequently, when the new computer system failed to work, there was no manual fallback. (If this all sounds horribly familiar, it is- our old friends the consultants at PWC designed the new task-based work system, and our old friends at Accenture designed and built the unworkable IT system. Strong shades of the NHS supercomputer, and the current goings on at DWP and HMRC).
  • It was ministers who decided that SPS should be implemented using the so-called "dynamic hybrid model", absolutely the most complicated of all possible approaches, and the one most EU members avoided like the plague.
  • It was ministers who imposed a tighter timetable than McNeill wanted
  • It was ministers who decided to press on with this crackpot scheme, even though they had been told there was a 60% chance of failure (Q 1195)

So despite the fact that the RPA was nominally an independent agency, it was ministers who took all the key decisions on the road to disaster.

There are other shocking revelations. To start with, McNeill never wanted the job in the first place. He could see it was a total snakepit, and quite sensibly did not apply for it. Unfortunately for him, he allowed himself to be cajoled and flattered into accepting, a decison he must now bitterly regret and which should stand as a stark warning to public servants everywhere.

Then, despite the high risks of disaster and the fact that the RPA is responsible for dishing out £1.5bn pa of public money, McNeill only ever met Defra Secretary of State Margaret Beckett twice in his whole time as CEO. And the second time was when he was made to confess personally to her that the entire project had blown up. In reality there seems to have been virtually no contact between the important people up at Defra's plush Whitehall offices and the poor bloody infantry slugging it out in the trenches. Or in this case, an office block somewhere in Reading.

McNeill lost his job. The politicos who should have been shot (pic above) fared somewhat better. The horse woman is our National Embarassment Foreign Secretary, Little Ben is still at Defra, and Beardman Knight is now screwing up our schools. Only Morley aand Bach have had to settle for the rigours of the backbenches.

As we've said many times. We don't want yet more expensive thickets of "independent" quangos, agencies, and general buck passing operations. We're not interested in sham arrangements designed to relieve politicos of responsibility for delivery.

We need Tesco government.

And we need it now.


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