Written by Nick Busvine
This article was first published on Briefings for Britain and we republish here with kind permission.
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Former diplomat Nick Busvine looks at why the civil service and state funded institutions have been found wanting in the face of the challenges posed by Brexit, Covid-19, China and identity politics – and concludes that real reform is urgently required.
We have just learnt that Simon Case will replace Sir Mark Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary – and that he will, presumably along with the PM’s special adviser Dominic Cummings, drive long overdue reform of the civil service. One Telegraph headline welcomed the ‘Rolls Royce of Sir Humphreys who will get things done’. Let’s hope so. Brexit, Covid, the flare up of the culture war centred on identity politics and the growing realisation that a reset of our relationship with China is required have all asked searching questions about the fitness of the machinery of government, which should be addressed urgently.
Our collective faith that in times of crisis the British could rely on first class service from the State to get us through has been rudely undermined of late. Brexit exposed damaging groupthink, lack of impartiality and, most worrying of all, a casual disregard for democracy in the heart of government. Just when it seemed that Boris Johnson’s triumphant election victory was about to restore some confidence in the system, Covid-19 struck. Naively perhaps, I was optimistic back in early March that for all the trials and tribulations of Brexit, the UK would respond to the pandemic in a deeply professional, class-leading way. This, I thought, was the sort of crisis that the relevant departments and agencies would have prepared for. The health experts were in place; emergency processes and procedures ready to roll out. The UK, after all, was good in a crisis. We would set an example for the world to follow. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Public Health England (PHE) is to be scrapped and the Permanent Under Secretary in the Department of Health and Social Care has stepped down.
We are now regularly treated to news stories bemoaning ‘the stench of incompetence’ in government. The exam results algorithm debacle that led to the resignation of the Head of Ofqual is a striking recent example. While everyone recognises that the government faces an unprecedented set of challenges, there is a growing sense of unease that as the bureaucratic machine has been placed under increasing strain, it has begun to falter. How has it come to this? Why has a set of government institutions once regarded as the best of the best fallen into decline? No doubt, a combination of post-Covid enquiries and expensive reports from consultants will in due course deliver their verdict. Cummings has clearly already drawn his own conclusions about what he refers to as ‘the blob’, though the precise nature of the ‘hard rain’ reform plan he is developing remains unclear.
Loss of resilience in our state funded institutions is likely to have a lot to do with changes in departmental culture and associated loss of experience and expertise in recent decades and most especially during the Blair years which saw simultaneously active politicisation and dumbing down. I left the Foreign Office in 2011 after 29 years in harness. Over that period focus on subject expertise and core delivery was increasingly blurred by what some of us used to refer to as the creeping advance of ‘political correctness’. Towards the end of my civil service career, there was a growing sense that leaders did not necessarily need to understand the nitty gritty of what their departments actually did on the shop floor. It was their job to articulate the vision, make sure the culture was right, to ensure that the appropriate processes and procedures were in place to meet departmental objectives – and last, but not least, to be a safe pair of hands. It was also essential to display an understanding of ‘best practice’ elsewhere in government and the private sector. Best practice might include, for example, designing and implementing programmes deemed to improve organisational culture. ‘Diversity’ of one form or another was a popular theme towards the end of my career – and remains so today. Those destined for top slots would be switched from one department to another to broaden their leadership experience and learn about what worked well elsewhere.
When organisations start to promote people on the basis of non-core skills is it any wonder that they are found wanting when – as leaders – they are required to deliver an agile, sure-footed response in times of crisis? Poor leadership degrades departmental resilience. If you don’t really understand the business you are managing, how are you going to lead when something unexpected happens? There must also be a danger that secondments designed to promote the sharing of ‘best practice’ can easily morph into a transmission mechanism for groupthink designed and shared by ‘people like us’. In my day, it was career death to stick to your guns on a point of operational principle if it meant that you were not being ‘joined-up’ with other interested departments.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II.