Taxpayers Alliance Research Director DUNCAN SIMPSON Has Bold Plan for Real Change in Public Service



Had the UK Covid19 Vaccine Task Force been led by politicians and bureaucrats in Whitehall instead of the brilliant Lady Kate Bingham, this country could now shut itself down for Christmas – like our hapless neighbors in Austria, Holland and the rest of the world. much of continental Europe.

There is no guarantee of failure like giving the public service a huge job.

Britain, it turned out, was benefiting from a global, private-sector-led program that saw vaccines bought and paid for before their results were even available.

If officials – whether in Whitehall or in government quangos – had been in charge, surely they would have spent the past 19 months procrastinating over bureaucratic processes, and we would have experienced a much worse pandemic.

But don’t take my word for it. Yesterday Dame Kate herself launched a stunning attack on the “group thinking and risk aversion” plaguing the UK civil service.

Dame Kate Bingham has warned that without the vital civil service reform the next global health pandemic needs could be even worse for Britain

She lamented the “devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing” – and emphatically stated that “the machinery of government is dominated by process rather than government. result, which causes delays and inertia ”.

Unfortunately, his diagnosis is correct. Whitehall is no longer the government ‘Rolls-Royce’ still in the popular imagination.

All too often he’s selfish, islander, snobbish, and underqualified – and his mandarins seem addicted to work from home.

Dame Kate is not the first person to point this out. Instead, his is just the most recent criticism of the administration’s sluggishness – and hopefully it will be one of the last.

The 1980s sitcom Yes, Minister introduced us to the figure of “Sir Humphrey,” the silky Mandarin whose job it was to keep our elected officials from shaking the boat too much.

In 1999, just two years after starting his tenure as Prime Minister, Tony Blair complained of wearing “scars on his back” after he tried – and clearly failed – to reform the public sector for the adapt to this century.

More recently, veteran Minister Michael Gove, along with Maverick Councilor-turned-Councilor # 10 Dominic Cummings, complained about “The Blob” – an amorphous and obstructive force that prevents serious change and pioneering policies.

Decades of the same review, then, but nothing has been done. Why? Well, from our research at the Taxpayers’ Alliance, we have identified a number of clear causes and solutions.

In almost any public institution, from the most powerful government department to the smallest quango, you will see the mind-numbing effects of group thinking.

This is in part due to the overwhelming preponderance of ‘generalist’ humanities graduates – who begin their working lives in the public sector after studying English, History or Classics at Oxbridge – rather than those in school. in the so-called “Stem” subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The 1980s sitcom Yes, Minister introduced us to the figure of ¿Sir Humphrey¿ (center, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne), a silky Mandarin whose job it was to prevent our elected officials from capsizing the boat too much.

The 1980s sitcom Yes, Minister introduced us to the figure of “Sir Humphrey” (center, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne), a silky Mandarin whose job it was to keep our elected officials from shaking the boat too much.

Ours, of course, is a world of technology. Think of an old-fashioned Mandarin, maybe in his mid-fifties, working at the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sports.

He or she may have grown up before the internet, but now he or she must find a way to interact with huge and all-powerful global tech giants, with their legions of lawyers and lobbyists.

A first in the classics or the history of a great university is a good thing – but it leaves it desperately ill-equipped to take on Silicon Valley’s brightest minds and toast them on the algorithms that determine what our kids watch on. their phones.

Indeed, the civil service is often technology inept: witnessing the ‘Making Tax Digital’ debacle, in which a new IT system for HMRC was rolled out – despite the fact that the Mandarins themselves found the program was not suitable for the purpose and had serious security vulnerabilities.

But because the program was already underway, it had to continue.

During this time, a particular official may be smart and conscientious, but by the time he or she gets a handle on the file, it may be transferred, for example, to the Northern Ireland office.

And that’s not all. Another deep problem, which the public service has in common with parts of the public sector, is the inability to fire the lazy and the incompetent.

Talk to any minister and he will feast you on stories of how officials simply refuse to follow directions – and there is nothing the minister can do about it.

It’s infuriating to see Home Secretary Priti Patel trying all she can to stop the waves of migrant boats landing on England’s south coast every day, as Whitehall responds to a snail beat or, it has been claimed, strangles his ideas at birth without offering alternatives.

In any company, an underling who refused to follow orders again and again would be fired. This is not the case in Whitehall. There the system is designed to outlast its political masters.

This is sometimes presented as a force: Governments and ministers can come and go, theory has it, but the government apparatus works smoothly – always politically neutral.

Compare that, say civil service advocates, with the United States, where incoming presidents sack and appoint their own officials, more or less on a whim.

Sometimes, however, there is something to be said for such dreadful power to wipe the slate clean.

In the UK, on ​​the other hand, Whitehall favors a kind of soft bureaucracy that locks public servants – no matter how smart, honest, noble and dedicated they are – in a system that positively resists change.

Meanwhile, unambitious lifers and institutionalized officials convey the same ideas and assumptions to their department heads.

This prevents a daring reformer from going ahead and upending the status quo.

We at the Taxpayers Alliance have a bold but simple proposal: a points-based system for all public appointments.

This would allow potential Whitehall recruits at all levels to be prioritized when they could bring new thinking, private sector experience or when they have a science and technology background.

It would do a lot to shake up the group spirit that characterizes so many of our public employees. The system must attract, cultivate and, most importantly, reward these pioneers from the outside – not even prevent them from setting foot through the front door.

Dominic Cummings, in his iconoclastic way, once looked for “weirdos and misfits” to serve him in issue 10. He identified the same problem we face on The Blob – although his solution is typically different.

Kate Bingham sees it too. She warned yesterday that without the vital reform the civil service needs, the next global health pandemic could be even worse for Britain – not to mention the other risks our country faces.

“Another war is coming,” she warned. “Let’s make sure we have the right people with the right skills to fight it.”

Now is the time for ministers to finally address these terrible concerns and end the tyranny of the mandarins once and for all.


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