Easy though it might be to overlook today, few privatised industries were overnight success stories. Quite the contrary, in fact. It turned out that half BT’s phone boxes were not working and that Thames Water’s pipelines were scandalously leaky. Privatisation did not initially improve the way these industries were run. Instead it quickly revealed quite how badly they had been managed before.
I suspect we are about to witness something rather similar with post-Brexit Britain. Being part of the European Union was a bit like being a nationalised industry. Since decisions made by Eurocrats and rubber-stamped by the Council of Ministers shaped so much of public life, politicians often had little responsibility. They had zero say over trade, or areas that fell under EU social policy, such as working hours. They could control immigration only from outside the EU, and had to follow regulations drawn up in Brussels on everything from pharmaceuticals to financial services. Shielded from the consequences of their own (in)action our elected representatives resorted to posturing, not decision-making.
Taking back control dramatically changes all that. Policymakers will now be answerable to the public. The immediate effect of this will be to reveal their cluelessness. Many ministers are appointed on the basis of their obsequiousness, rather than any evident ability. How many recent Cabinet ministers had a record of real achievement prior to going into politics? Maybe one or two. Frontbenchers depicted as big political beasts are merely MPs canny enough to get themselves puffed up by lobby correspondents. Which leading lights in David Cameron or Gordon Brown’s governments went on to achieve anything of note after leaving office? Some hold sinecures. Others, such as Nick Clegg, have taken to lobbying. Most simply disappear without trace.
Party loyalties mean that even third-rate ministers get a cheer at the dispatch box when the country would be better served by handing them a P45. In the meantime, inept ministers remain and can count on senior civil servants to prop them up.
Whitehall, like Westminster, is configured to conceal incompetence, not expose it. The way that the Civil Service Management code is interpreted ensures that the inadequate are recycled into new roles. Rules on what are known as “lateral transfers”, for example, ensure that even the most mediocre officials survive. I was told in confidence of one major department that still has no accessible central record of its contracts.
To appreciate quite the dysfunctionality, consider the fate of every reformist administration elected to office over the past 30 years. Despite Tony Blair’s monster majority in 1997, within two years he was complaining about “the scars on my back” from battles with a hostile state machine. Was his legacy of actual change commensurate with his three enormous election wins? In coalition with the Lib Dems, David Cameron had sufficient votes for his Big Society. Like Blair, a politician he seemed to emulate, he left office with remarkably little achieved.
Boris Johnson has a majority in the Commons, but if he is to translate it into meaningful reform, he must radically overhaul the machinery of state. Just as shortcomings in the system became apparent in those privatised industries once they had to answer to shareholders, the inadequacies in our system of public administration cannot be overlooked.
For a start, we need strategic coherence at the centre of government. At the moment the centre is split between Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. The prime minister should establish a unified department, merging Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the budget-setting sections of the Treasury. Spending totals should be set by the centre, and a beefed-up delivery unit given responsibility to oversee how effectively the money is spent. The departure of Sajid Javid and the advent of a joint No. 10-Treasury advisers’ group marks a start, but there is much more to do.
Ministers need to be issued with a clear mandate—similar to the kind of Charter Letters that the Australian Prime Minister issues to their ministers—setting out their goals. One of the Great British conceits is that the way we do things—our NHS, the BBC, our system of policing—is automatically better than the way anyone else manages such things. Nowhere is this conceit more unsubstantiated than when it comes to our machinery of government. Other countries run better systems of health care, produce better television entertainment and have more effective police forces—and get more value for their taxpayers’ cash.
New Zealand, for example, has a single body—the State Services Commission—at the heart of government, setting budgets and assessing progress. Ireland now also has a dedicated department for “public expenditure and reform” that does this job. Yet in Britain we leave it to the Treasury leviathan, which is supposed to oversee expenditure, while steering macro economic policy. It manages neither.
Civil servants should have their careers tied to the successful implementation of policies and programmes. No longer free to flit in and out of roles after 18 months, most civil servants should expect to remain in their jobs for a full Parliamentary term, so increasing incentives to expose failure.
In ought to be possible to bring outsiders into Whitehall to run things. At the moment, however, the system means ministers must largely depend on people who sat a set of fast stream civil service exams 20 years ago. It is a system hostile to outsiders and this has to change.
Ever since the prime minister won his majority, there has been much speculation on what kind of government this will prove to be. Will it be pro-free market, or interventionist? Will it prefer tax cuts or massive spending on new infrastructure—or both? What matters most is not what this government’s preferences might be. What counts is whether it will be effective at making those preferences a reality.
Privatised industries improved because of the realisation that they were managed so badly before. Only then could work begin to improve them. I suspect we are about to wake up to the ingrained inadequacy across much of Westminster and Whitehall.
This article first appeared in Standpoint Magazine