Whitehall woes: why is no one talking about our crumbling civil service?

 We carry the world’s knowledge in our pockets. So why is my hospital still sending me unintelligible letters?

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Nine months on from the EU referendum, it feels like the country is going through yet another recession, maybe even a depression. But it's not an economic downturn - instead, it's a political one. Pulling out of it will mean looking deep into the dustiest corners of our institutions.

After 1945, British politics went through three decades or so of consensus. Margaret Thatcher turned that upside down, leaving behind another three decades of relative accord. 2017 again sees Britain bobbing on waves of flux. What a wonderful time this is for those who want government to change. Things will be different. But how?

Macroeconomics 101 says that nations can experience two types of recession. One is caused by a lack of demand, the other by a lack of supply. The right treatment depends on the diagnosis.

One reading of what led up to Brexit is that mainstream politics simply ran out of steam. Coalition government left even fewer options on the menu. Imprisoned by a system that didn’t appear to listen to them, what mattered most to a large group of voters was a truer sense of choice, a genuine element of agency. The consequences of exercising that choice were secondary.

The politicians that have prospered in recent months have been those that put policy choices on the table that others won’t. “He’s only saying what others think,” is a familiar refrain of Trump, Farage and Corbyn supporters. New personalities and policies are the political equivalent of pumping the economy full of money. They are a source of fresh thoughts, new arguments.

In politics, as in economics, pumping in more money is not always a good idea. If there is no supply to fulfil it, all fresh demand does is substitute for what’s already there. What if ideas and policies aren’t the problem? What if, when it comes down to it, our institutions can’t deliver on any of them?

The post-war and post-Thatcher consensuses were not just built on new ideas. They also forged a new institutional arithmetic. Some of the same characters clung on to the fast-moving train both times; others fell by the wayside. Yet there is little to suggest that the typical Brexiteer’s idea of a new Establishment is more developed than shrill incantations of ‘the will of the people’ and complaining about the Foreign Office. On the other side of the coin, the UK’s existing institutions are adopting a position of complacency. There has been no suggestion from Parliament, Whitehall or elsewhere that it will be anything other than ‘business as usual’ when the dust settles.

Whitehall woes

The civil service is a huge part of politics’ supply side. How the bureaucracy works is no accident. Whitehall’s norms have been tacitly reaffirmed hundreds of times. And yet we pay the civil service almost no attention at all.

To give this government some credit, it hasn’t ignored Whitehall completely. In February this year, it promised to “transform the relationship between the citizen and the state”. Sounds quite newsworthy doesn’t it? Had you heard this was on the agenda? Not many people have.

Such ambition is hardly a trifle on top of everything else this busy administration is doing. That it has been announced at all reflects a growing realisation among a section of the political class that there is a odd smell coming from the machinery of government.

The civil service is often compared to a car; a Rolls-Royce more often than not. An undefinable sense of doom steals over cars when they are about to break. They leak unexpectedly. A driver begins to take it as read that most of her dashboard dials are wrong, and the buttons that work perform their tasks at random. She learns to fear silence as much as the clunks.

Universal Credit and the Green Deal were two flagship policies for the previous administration; one nearly died, the other emphatically did. This time around, the customs system and managing the border will be in the political foreground. There are already some ominous signs.

These projects fail expensively for the same reasons. They are fiendishly brilliant on paper, but dissolve on contact with reality. Things got very bad during Universal Credit’s implementation. £300 million largely went up in smoke on IT that wasn’t secure. 

Distanced by design from the people they serve, dominated by a policy-led hierarchy, too many top officials are neither incentivised nor expected to deeply understand the needs of citizens or businesses. Instead, the institutional default is to make untested assumptions behind closed doors, rely on intermediary interest groups to frame reality, and release the results of their guesses on an unsuspecting world. If they’re really lucky, they get close to the mark. If they miss, the world muddles around them  -  including the luckless front-line public servants forced to deal with the consequences.

Ministers are not blind to the importance of putting this house in order, but events distract them from doing so until it is too late. As a result, complacency is writ large over Whitehall and the NHS.

Some would argue the bureaucracy isn’t a political animal. But having an independent civil service is not the same as having a politically neutral one. Brexit’s blank sheet has turned Whitehall’s natural biases into huge policy decisions, completely by default. That isn’t a conscious choice. It’s the natural consequence of an organisation run on 150-year old rules. 

You might say that it is no surprise that the Civil Service is getting things wrong. It is smaller in number than at any time since before the second world war. It has laboured under miserly pay increases since 2008. Officials have had to administer the nation while operating under the tightest spending controls for a generation.

All fair and true. But remember this. Administrative failures are not a post-crash phenomenon. The critique of Whitehall as distant, generalist and zest-free spans decades, if not centuries. What is different today is the waters surrounding central government. Many deeply comfortable industries have already been turned upside down by the Internet. Having repeatedly failed to change from within, it is dawning on many monolithic companies that their only remaining option is to quietly start afresh and compete with themselves. The alternative is to watch the river route around them.

Demanding citizens

Our growing expectations elsewhere are leaving government behind. The web has made the near-impossible trivial. We carry the world’s knowledge in our pockets. So why is my hospital still sending me unintelligible letters? Why does a criminal records check take many months? Where is my new passport? How do such clever people end up asking me to do such ridiculous things?

Unlike like the banks, insurers and others who have seen the writing on the wall, government remains locked into replicating the same institutional shapes. Want to outsource services? We’ll give them to companies who look and behave exactly like departments. Want to respond to Brexit? Create another department or two. Let’s draw the organisation structure before thinking deeply about the skills that might populate it. We’ll start with the features we guess are needed, rather than working out what jobs we need to do. If all you have are hammers, every problem is a nail.

The question now is which side of the Establishment divide will seize the opportunity for institutional reform first. Insurgent outsiders or embattled incumbents.

One group has a real advantage in this; those who have been here before. After government ministers leave office, they repent.

Ministers almost never complain about their officials while in office. To do so would be foolhardy. Being a minister is isolating enough at the best of times. They rarely even see their political colleagues. Antagonising the only group of people in their corner isn’t very smart.

Most save their true feelings for the machinery of government until a return to office becomes unlikely. Their tirades shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. Even the bureaucracy’s harshest critics invariably express respect and admiration for the Civil Service’s intellect, their Private Office and the individuals who make the system work. Most have come to realise the hard way that having clever people onside is not enough.

The Institute for Government’s excellent "Ministers Reflect" series has lots in this vein. Angry views, like the former Energy minister Greg Barker (“I found it very, very frustrating in government the extent to which I was hampered from delivering my agenda by the way in which the department was run.”). Thoughtful views, like former Secretary of State for Business, Vince Cable (“I tended to kowtow to it but eventually I realised it was just people being lazy or unadventurous or not doing their job properly. But there was civil service inertia around a lot of issues.”). Or perplexed views, like Oliver Letwin (“The sheer analytical incisiveness which I had more or less been able to rely on in the ’80s had not disappeared…but there was very much less of it around…I don’t know quite what went wrong in the civil service.”)

In his role as Minister for Government Policy, Letwin probably met more senior civil servants than any other minister during the Cameron administration. His assessment is therefore especially troubling. It is one thing for the bureaucracy to be flawed  -  no big organisation is ever going to be perfect. It is more worrying, especially at times like these, to consider that it might actually be going backwards. Perhaps the old Yes, Minister trope is less relevant for today’s Whitehall not because the system is no less successful at thwarting ministers, but because civil servants don’t do it with as much élan as they used to.

However, it’s important to be clear that the problem is rarely individuals. You might get the impression I have no time for civil servants. Quite the opposite. I was one. I met thousands of others. With very few exceptions, the people I worked with in government were intelligent, committed and well-meaning. Some  -  from the top to bottom of the machine  -  are quite brilliant. They are not corrupt, venal or lazy. They work hard. They are unselfish. No, the problem is with their institution and the incentives that guide them.

Saying what a reformed civil service looks like is not easy. An obvious plan to start is an institution that is more open, more comfortable bringing together a blend of talents, less balkanised along departmental and professional lines, and much closer to the people it serves. A place that can accommodate a broader set of motivations from prospective and serving public servants; rather than one that rewards only lifers, generalists and congenital snag-hunters. But even that  -  a massive leap forward in bureaucratic terms  -  is only half the answer. Do all of that, and you get a much improved civil service. You don’t get the government equivalent of AirBnB, or Monzo, or Uber. How that emerges should be the real question at the top of mind for our next generation of British political leaders.

Because right now, if you’re counting on a killer policy idea: Brexit, action on climate change, a basic income, an integrated transport policy, fewer immigrants, electric vehicles, legalised cannabis, a flat tax, more housebuilding, a thinner green belt, city mayors, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. It may be just what this country needs. But who will make it real?

Andrew Greenway is a former senior civil servant who has worked for five UK government departments. He writes regularly on Whitehall and tweets at @ad_greenway.​