Thursday, June 19, 2008

Up Betimes

"Up betimes and to White Hall, where the Committee for Tangier met, and there, though the case as to the merit of it was most plain and most of the company favourable to our business, yet it was with much ado that I got the business not carried fully against us, but put off to another day."

An excerpt from a great blog written by a senior civil servant at the Navy Board. And to read it, you'd never think there was a war on - he's forever describing how senior Board officials avoid making decisions, and constantly put off anything tricky to another day. They seem to be a bunch of bumbling amateurs stuck in a bygone age.

Which of course, they are. 1665 to be precise.

But fast forward 343 years from Samuel Pepys, and listen to Zenna Atkins, a distant successor of his as director of the Royal Navy Fleet Executive Board (as well as various other government oversight posts). She says:

'I could say without doubt that significant parts of the civil service are broken. The machinery of government is not even in the 20th century, never mind the 21st century... They are working in a machine with a set of customs, cultures, values and practices that are utterly antiquated. A lot of the time the process is more important than the outcome.'

The civil service is 'overpopulated with highly intelligent people who can't do simple, menial tasks, simply or menially'. They are risk-averse 'because no civil servant ever got fired for doing nothing. They get fired for doing something.'

Sam P would have felt totally at home.

As it happens, Ken Livingstone has been banging on about the same thing. Freed from Mayoral restraint, he told a recent local government conference that Whitehall mandarins are ‘opposed to doing anything... you could persuade ministers but civil servants were very hostile.’ Yes, OK, that's Ken, but the issue is clear.

We've blogged before about the Cult of the Amateur, and how, more than 40 years after the supposed "watershed" Fulton Report, it's still alive and well in the Civil Service.

And we've also blogged about how when Tyler first joined the Service in the early 70s, his Permanent Secretary told him the job was to stop the politicians doing anything too stupid: in other words to slow everything down, or even better, to stop change altogether (and he wasn't joking).

So we can hardly be shocked at what Pepys, Zenna Atkins, and Ken have to say.

But what should be done? What can be done?

The legions of Big Government are torn between the Ken solution (a US-style executive civil service, in which the senior people change with the administration), and the ippr solution (a "professional" civil service which smoothly and painlessly implements whatever policy the politicos desire).

Neither approach is appealing.

Much better would be to end Big Government altogether: break it up, and downsize the civil service back more like to what it was in Sam's day.


PS Talking of the cult of the amateur, our very first blog on the subject recorded the tale of a mandarin who had comprehensively screwed up the Home Office. His reward was to be moved into the job of Deputy Governor at the Bank of England in charge of financial stability. Now, two years, Northern Rock, and a banking crisis later, Sir John Gieve has finally been exited... doubtless to spend some quality time with that public sector pension.

PPS October 25, 1668 “After supper, to have my head combed by Deb, which occasioned the greatest sorrow to me that ever I knew in this world, for my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl con my hand sub su coats and endeed I was..." The great thing about Pepys is that he didn't let being Chief Secretary to the Navy cramp his style. Even if these days he'd certainly have been banged up for sexual harassment of a serving wench.

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