As regular readers will know, we have long advocated Tesco government.
Tesco government works like this:
- every four or five years, we punters peruse the sales brochures put out by various competing firms of politicos
- based on their offers and the relative standing of each brand we award one of them our business
- the winner then has to deliver what was promised, harnessing the massive resources at their disposal as best they can
- as long as it's legal, we punters don't really care how the winner does that, any more than we care how Terry Leahy organises Tesco to deliver our weekly groceries
Under Tesco government, the buck ultimately stops with the Prime Minister, as Chief Exec. If there's a failure to deliver, it's his failure. And no amount of bleating about how his subordinates are all pants can change that - he's the boss, and he should have bulleted anyone not up to the job. He should especially have bulleted and replaced any senior executives who were not likely to deliver his plans.
Now, Tesco government is not what we have at present. What we have today is still much closer to Sir Humphrey government.
Under Sir Humphrey government, responsibilities for delivery are fuzzy - very fuzzy indeed. The PM may be the Chief Exec on paper, but in reality, he must work through several layers of incumbent senior managers, many of whom are too amateurish to run a whelk stall (see copious previous blogs eg here). Worse, many of them will actively oppose the PM's policies, especially if they involve any of the four ings - privatisating, decentralising, downsizing, and outsourcing.
Which brings us to the Tories' plans for managing the civil service. According to the Times:
"Francis Maude, the Shadow Cabinet Office minister, has drafted proposals to let ministers, rather than the 28 permanent secretaries, chair boards in Whitehall departments if the Tories win power. Mr Maude is planning to fill these boards with non-executive members from the private sector and, for the first time, give them powers to recommend firing permanent secretaries. The most senior civil servants would be put on fixed-term contracts and the salaries of the top 35,000 officials would be published online.
The reforms, designed to hold officials to account and improve performance, represent the first direct threat to the powerbase built up over decades by permanent secretaries."
Unsuprisingly, the mandarins don't like this one little bit. But if it means what it says, it could be an important step in the direction of Tescos.
Or to put it another way, an important step in the direction of US-style government, where the elected President appoints between 500 and 1000 of his own people to the senior posts across the main departments of state. He picks experts in the field whom he trusts to deliver on his promises. And he is directly accountable for their performance.
We don't want to be like the ghastly yanks, and our civil service has to remain above politics, otherwise the politicos could do untold damage to the fabric of the nation?
Unfortunately, while our our current arrangements may stop politicos achieving what they want (ie what they've promised us), they do so only at the cost of delivering a huge wasteful mess. The mandarins may include some very smart cookies, but they ain't much good at management and delivery. Not only are they not interested in such tedious affairs, they are absolutely rubbish at it.
You may recall that when the Commons Public Administration Committee looked at whether our major government departments were fit for purpose in 2007, they came out with an average departmental score of just 35%. Overall, they found the civil service inhabiting world of poor professionalism, poor management, poor delivery, and poor commitment.
As a reminder, here's their summary table listing all the main departments (scores out of 10):
PS There's already too much power in the hands of the executive? Yes, indeed. But that's because government is just too big, and we have absolutely no divsision of power between executive and our whipped legislature. We should tackle those issues directly, not via the supposed independence of the civil service, which just results in nothing getting done properly.