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.