Labour needs to challenge the British tradition of government

A reforming, centre-left government must fashion a credible and robust statecraft, revitalising the civil service for the challenges of the contemporary age.

Civil service reform and the machinery of government may not be as immediately enticing as the progressive challenge of transforming Britain’s broken political economy, or revitalising the post-war welfare state. But the question of how to use governmental power effectively will be a vital issue for the next Labour government. Competent statecraft is about the capacity to generate sound policy and crucially, to implement and execute reforms in an ever more diverse and complex society. In his seminal treatise, The Prince, Machiavelli famously argued that well governed states, "are full of good institutions…conducive to the security of kind and the realm".

Good statecraft entails constructive relations between civil servants and politicians in which decisions are, wherever possible, informed by knowledge and evidence; it requires a modern notion of accountability where officials take operational responsibility where appropriate, but also contribute to greater openness in the policy-making process; efficiency and value for money are achieved through effective implementation based on decentralisation and an understanding that those who implement policy should have a voice in its formulation; and there is proper democratic oversight of government and policy-making, principally through the scrutiny function of parliament.  

More than ever, solving the major strategic challenges confronting the UK requires effective governance. Policy is increasingly about resolving trade-offs accentuated by financial constraints and fiscal austerity. These are likely to grow in future years given demographic pressures, new demands on state-funded services, and rising public expectations. What, for example, is the right balance between direct income redistribution and investment in early year’s provision to tackle child poverty? How should the state encourage employers to contribute more towards the costs of retraining and lifelong education? How should the National Health Service become more preventative and user-focused? These are all questions about the appropriate distribution and targeting of resources: how to harness all of the policy levers available to achieve strong outcomes strengthening economic efficiency and social justice.   

Throughout history, reform of the state has legitimately been a priority for progressives in British politics. Towards the end of the First World War, a coalition of liberals and Fabians established the Haldane Committee which developed the modern departmental system of government that still predominates today, driving the major social reform achievements of the inter-war years. After 1940, Labour’s contribution to the war effort was in part to open up Whitehall, bringing a legion of experts into the civil service to improve economic policy and industrial planning. This was the seed-bed for the 1942 Beveridge report which established a comprehensive welfare state and NHS. 

Post-1945, the Attlee administration sought to further update and modernise the central civil service. By the 1960s, in the face of relative economic decline and industrial stagnation, it was clear that the system of government needed further reform, a challenge seized by the Wilson government which established the Fulton Committee in 1968. Fulton’s proposed reforms sought to improve civil service training and capacity, strengthening departmental co-ordination and sharpening policy-making expertise. And after Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, Labour set about improving the capacity of Whitehall to carry out a new generation of social reforms – from the New Deal and Academy schools to Sure Start and a plethora of early years’ interventions to equalise life-chances.   

Despite these successes, however, there are practical lessons from the post-1997 governments which ought to be heeded. This is precisely what my new book on Governing Britain (IB Tauris, 2014) seeks to do. I argue that there are five key, stand-out governance reform messages that should be understood.

The first is that successful policies more often build on, but also adapt, what went before: don't rip up policies or institutions for the sake of it. Incremental reforms are often those most likely to succeed in the long-term. Labour chose to scrap Grant Maintained Schools after 1997, insisting they were divisive in promoting a two-tier education system. However, by the early 2000s, the government was developing its own model of "independent state schools". It would have been better from day one to place GM schools within a new framework of public accountability, local democratic oversight, and equity guarantees.    

A further lesson of the New Labour years is that Number Ten cannot circumvent departments and "front-line" public agencies. At times, the centre sought to directly control the levers of implementation, bypassing Whitehall departments altogether. Invariably, this led to less effective policy-making and execution. It is in departments where expertise, knowledge, policy memory, resources, and experience of front-line implementation are often greatest. Central government needs to work with agencies and people throughout the policy chain if it wants sustainable, long-term improvements in performance. Labour’s experience demonstrates that a "top-down" delivery regime will help to shift a public service from "incompetent" to "acceptable", but rarely "from good to great". 

The third lesson of the post-1997 period is that governments need to boost their strategy and delivery capacity. Governments should have the ability to foresee problems and understand policy challenges more forensically than is the case at present. They should learn from policy experiments tried and tested elsewhere, being open to ideas from around the world. There is no harm is absorbing lessons gleaned from other sectors in understanding how to address modern delivery challenges. The Internet is transforming the manner in which the retail sector operates in the UK, alongside customer experience: public services cannot be immune from such trends, even if they are also concerned with equity and accountability.

At the same time, the civil service badly needs more people and capabilities. Alistair Darling has referred in his memoir Beyond the Brink to how few officials there were in the Treasury after 2008 that had experience either of financial services or handling major economic crises. The slimming-down and "hollowing-out" of the British state to cut costs and promote efficiency may result in worse outcomes over time.

Fourthly, the New Labour years demonstrate conclusively that "joined-up government" is still a long way from reality in the British machinery of governance. Departments and agencies are still too inclined to engage in turf wars, passing the buck of resolving "wicked" policy problems onto one another. Much greater emphasis on genuine departmental co-ordination and inter-agency collaboration will be required.

The final lesson of the post-1997 era is that governance reforms are harder as the UK has remained a highly centralised state with few checks and balances on central executive power, stemming from the nature of the British political tradition. Devolution has redistributed some power from central government, but Whitehall remains firmly in control. The default governing code is one of hierarchy, centralisation, command and control – an ethos of "central government knows best". This too needs to be urgently reformed – part of a long-term process of political decentralisation. 

Britain has to learn from the experience of other countries in reforming its governance arrangements, as well as reflecting on previous historical experience. "Power is harder to use and easier to lose," argues the political scientist Moses Naim, as every government is discovering across the developed world. A reforming, centre-left government must fashion a credible and robust statecraft, revitalising the civil service and our machinery of government for the challenges of the contemporary age. 

Patrick Diamond is vice-chair of Policy Network and lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Governing Britain: Power, Politics and the Prime Minister, published today by IB. Tauris  

Ed Miliband speaks to an audience on the living standards crisis at Battersea Power station on November 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.