“Fuck the algorithm,” the slogan chanted by school students protesting the A-level fiasco, may become the signature demand of the 21st century. But it was not an intelligent machine that caused the social injustice of the downgrades. Nor was it simply the incompetence of an all-too-unintelligent education secretary.
What we are dealing with here is indifference: a separation between responsibility and accountability that has been programmed into all facets of British governance. The government asked Ofqual, the qualifications body in England, to design a solution to exam cancellation that could prevent grade inflation. The solution it designed contained a statistical nonsense – a wholly new requirement for teachers to rank every student in order – which was then shoehorned into the results patterns of the previous year.
Ofqual knew this would likely produce downgrades of star pupils in under-performing schools, but it assured the government that this outcome was the least unjust solution possible. On that basis Gavin Williamson took to the airwaves, defending the unjust solution, until messages from outraged parents – many of them Tory voters – flooded MPs’ inboxes. In the subsequent U-turn, Ofqual had to scrap half a year’s work; the government had to scrap its cap on student numbers; tens of thousands of young people still face uncertainty and potential career blight; and some universities face financial doom.
But nobody has resigned. Not the chief executive of Ofqual, not the Education Secretary, not the senior civil servants who signed off on the system. Switch to the test and trace fiasco and it’s the same story. From the outset of the pandemic, the government tried to build its own app, which could alert people to contact with potential Covid-19 carriers, based on a detailed central register of identities. Executives from Apple and Google warned the government that it would not work on their operating systems because of privacy concerns – but the government pressed ahead regardless.
Forced to abandon the project in June, with months and millions of pounds wasted, the government switched to the alternative designed by Apple and Google – but there is still no UK track and trace app. Dido Harding, the Tory peer parachuted in to take control of test and trace, was not sacked but instead handed control of the UK’s entire public health infrastructure as interim head of the new National Institute for Health Protection, which supersedes Public Health England (PHE).
It’s the same culture of irresponsibility that caused Grenfell, the Windrush scandal and the personal protective equipment shortage. And the problem is structural. Because in the neoliberal governance system, irresponsibility is part of the design.
For more than 40 years, governments have pursued the marketisation of public services. By this I don’t mean just outright privatisation, but the injection of market norms and behaviour into the relationship between government and its agencies.
Ofqual, for example, is a “non-ministerial department”, technically responsible to parliament – which has no operational control over it – but actually responsible to the Department for Education, which appoints the chief executive. Yet it still has a corporate-style chair and non-executive board, experts who receive £6,000 a year for an estimated 20 days’ work.
It was pressure from the board, according to reports, that helped trigger the U-turn – but ultimately, as one board member told the BBC: “Ofqual’s role is to carry out government policy. And when policy shifts every 12 to 24 hours, Ofqual then has to deal with it as best as it can.”
PHE, which has now been summarily replaced, was an “executive agency” – part of the government but “a distinct delivery organisation with operational autonomy”. It clearly failed – on testing, on reporting and ultimately in containing the virus – because it was underfunded. In addition, though PHE originated from a biosecurity organisation (the Health Protection Agency), it ended up as a health promotion body, dealing with issues such as obesity.
To understand why two arms-length bodies of the UK government have simultaneously failed, you have to understand the philosophy that created them. Once the Tories had completed the primary task of asset-stripping the state – of its railways, water, telecoms and aerospace infrastructure – free-market economics demanded the marketisation of everything else.
Unemployed people had to become the “clients” of job centres, where the product they had involuntarily purchased was Gestapo-style interviews designed to reduce their benefits. Agencies such as Ofqual and PHE had to meet service-level agreements and targets, like the maintenance company of a big building, even though there was no competition to judge them against.
For William Davies, the Goldsmiths political economist, it is this that forms the essence of neoliberalism: “The elevation of market-based principles and techniques of evaluation to the level of state-endorsed norms.” But unlike a real market, which for all its cruelty and ferocity does sort the weak from the strong and punish inefficiency, the full-blown neoliberalism of the marketised state typically rewards failure.
Thus Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of PHE, is allowed a valedictory statement on the summary dissolution of his agency, offering no regrets, no explanations – and immediately gets a job leading a “new Stakeholder Advisory Group to provide expert advice from leading thinkers in public health, healthcare and local government”. The bosses of Ofqual, meanwhile, can argue with some justification that, for all the claims of political independence, they were only obeying orders.
Who profits from these arrangements? The left often gets obsessed about “big business” as the beneficiary of neoliberal privatisation, but here we should focus on the UK’s politico-managerial caste: people who own no substantial capital but will not get out of bed for less than £140k a year and a generous pension.
Amid the senior doctors and scientists, PHE had, for example, a director of marketing, a “chief people officer”, and a director of strategy – functions usually filled from within the private sector. With 20 non-ministerial departments listed on the gov.uk website that’s a substantial jobs merry-go-round for the £140k brigade. If you add in the revolving door that moves business executives such as Harding, unelected, into the legislature, and senior civil servants into the boardrooms of major banks and corporations, you begin to understand: failure pays good money.
“Fail here, move there” is the philosophy of Britain’s unimpressive managerial stratum – and it’s mirrored in the experience of senior politicians. Theresa May sacked Gavin Williamson as defence secretary following a leak investigation. Boris Johnson revived him as education secretary, where he has failed again.
In the end, the whole arrangement provides financial security for a set of dim people who in the 19th century would have become village curates or “remittance men”, sent to the colonies to live on a regular cheque and do no damage. But its bigger purpose is political: the panoply of quangos ensures that, when a building goes up in flames, or an entire generation of Caribbean pensioners is terrorised, or 600,000 people are killed in a war based on false intelligence, no politician gets the blame.
It used to be socialists who were derided for insisting that no child should be allowed to fail in the education system, no family left to rot in substandard housing, no town’s high street allowed to decay because of market forces.
In reality, it is the neoliberal political class for whom “all must have prizes” – and the closer you are personally to the clique of xenophobes who now run the government, the bigger the prize will be.