Don’t blame the mandarins

I cannot easily recall a really excellent, well thought through, politically cleared idea that was stopped because of the machinations of civil servants.

I can think of plenty which were stopped because they were impractical, illegal, in conflict with other stated aims of the government, impossible to deliver on to the parliamentary timescale, unaffordable, unwittingly bad value for money, or too slapdash to be taken seriously.

I can also think of plenty of really bad policies that have been pushed through despite voluminous and persistent civil service complaints, including one (from the Treasury) so poor that I couldn’t read a submission on it without playing this music.

You cannot read “The Blunders of Our Governments” by King and Crewe without concluding that excessive official insubordination isn’t what lies behind a history of bad policies in this country.  Far more often, the civil servants have failed to speak up, have failed to reflect wider interests – have, in other words, failed to do what this seemingly innocuous memo asks them to do.

The memo has caused a huge amount of fuss, as reported by Allegra Stratton here.   Apparently this is close to anti-democratic treason. A good PermSec is one who:

Balances Ministers’ or high-level stakeholders’ immediate needs or priorities with the long-term aims of their Department, being shrewd about what needs to be sacrificed, at what costs and what the implications might be

Gosh, lock the doors of the House of Parliament, I sense a coup.

The Institute for Government has a balanced response: of course there are wider interests to serve, including the capacity of the Department to serve future governments.  A minister can’t just slash and burn the capacity of a department he doesn’t happen to like.

This sounds paternalistic, but ministers and their advisers frequently do not understand the implications of their policy spasms.  Such spasms often stem from a pitifully thin evidence base, and are only subject to scrutiny from a generally tame bunch of close commentator-friends, who will naturally be told, and repeat back to their readers, that the policy idea is sheer, radical genius.

No it isn’t. One of the best ideas I heard from another spad was from Nick Hillman, who said every department should have its Chief Historian, in order to remind the short term and media-harried boss of the day exactly how many times his recent idea has failed. Genuine originality is rare; and originality that works is priceless.

Good policy is seldom stopped by the scheming mandarinate. They are often the messenger of bad news,  however, and being more experienced at  actually encountering the obstacles, will be more cautious.  Sufficient number of bad ideas have been forced through to suggest that the real enemy wasn’t some guy in a suit – it was reality itself.

The very best policy takes time, and proceeds through a constant tug of contrary forces, testing opposition the whole way.  It takes a little persistence.  Much of the early policy referred to here was born either in the hopeless Big Society/Detoxification phase of Cameron’s leadership, or during the brief Rose Garden idealism that followed.  It ended with the departure of a couple of spads. If it really couldn’t get through even when the Coalition was in its pomp, it wasn’t very good.

From time to time you will read columns revealing how some great idea has been being thwarted by Mandarins.   This is usually the clearest sign than an incompetent spad has been on manoeuvres.  It isn’t a coup.



Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc, and formerly in my mid-40s. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

5 thoughts on “Don’t blame the mandarins

  1. OTOH – if I were appointed the leader of an established organisation I would be pretty upset if the people reporting to me sent out a memo to everyone basically saying “Chris has been appointed our boss, he has some crazy ideas, we have a responsibility to manage him so that he doesn’t do anything too stupid and especially put the future of the organisation at risk.” Now this may in fact be true, but you can see why I might be angry. If the memo was brought to my attention I would have no choice except to repudiate it, otherwise I would be neutralized.

    Why did something think it was a good idea to write such a memo? Do our senior civil servants really need this level of handholding? That’s worrying in itself. The good old British tradition is that everyone understood these things including their responsibilities but it was never written down. You have to do this by “understanding” as unlike most countries Britain does not have a constitution, which might codify this kind of thing. And you can’t just settle constitutional decisions by unilateral memos like this, the split of responsibilities between political and civil service is part of a much bigger picture of how the overall political system works and would have to be extensively debated and agreed nationally.

    1. I think you are taking the exaggerated interpretation of the memo, not its duller reality. The point is that it was written to specify the skills a Permsec needs. And if that hadn’t laid out that PermSecs need to navigate the waters between the ideas that are wanted, the ideas that work, the ideas that others want, the ideas that may just happen, then it would be missing something.

      This memo doesn’t settle anything. it merely served to elicit the previous views of a bunch of people …

    1. These are all great comments that a. Sort of confirm for me that the ‘urgent structural reform’ story that some see is obvious from the data is too simple and b. Deserve a longer reply than what I can manage beside this pool. So my thanks

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