Monday, December 19, 2005


I'm in the mood for a rant. Rants aren't always entirely fair, but they are cathartic, and they sometimes contain a grain of truth. So here is today's rant.

I'm not sure if Tim Worstall and I are from the same part of the political spectrum, but I identify with his general view that the term 'civil service' is something of an oxymoron in this country.

While it is hard for me, as a socialist (cue; self important pose) to agree with his view (in an older posting) that "there is never a situation so bad that bad Government action can’t make it worse", I'd be happy to negotiate. I'd replace the term 'bad Government action' with 'British Civil Service'."

I rarely see a newspaper article that states the obvious on this - how low the quality of service the public can expect from senior civil servants. BBC Radio 4's Today programme is running a feature entitled 'Who Runs Britain' - something I've posted about before. As far as I can see, they have no plans to include The Civil Service as a candidate. Yet this is precisely who runs the country.

Our 'generalists' who are 'independent' and 'impartial'.

Let me rephrase that.

Our amateurs who don't give a damn about how well the country is run because Politicians will always take the blame, so that when they bugger the country up, the voters demand a change of government and vote in a new one, the same people can continue to bugger the country up with impunity.

The political ecology of this country means that these people are above criticism. The government won't criticise them because their opponents will ensure that it is shifted onto a political plane. Similarly, the opposition will always seek to characterise bureaucratic incompetence as a political failing.

I suspect where Tim and I diverge, is that - rather than arguing for smaller government and an increased role for other sectors, I'd make the bastards eat their own dogfood. I'd state-fund political parties. Get them to develop their own rival bureaucracies and make elections meaningful. In Tim's fine book, he has kindly included a piece of mine dealing with the incompetent and self-interested way that IT procurement is done.

There is a widespread view that the problem here is that the Civil Service need to learn more about how to deal with the private sector (the underlying assumption being that the private sector will be more efficient, effective and bidable).

I think that the real problem is that - far from exposing the public sector to competition, oursourcing simply allows them to find an external scapegoat for their own incompetence.

Parkinson's Law is fairly clear on this: Bureaucracies don't shrink - no matter what you do, they will continue to grow. I'd suggest that the kind of 'in and out' system that they have in France or the US would, at least mean that they had some pressure to behave reasonably.

Next time you hear one of our Sir Humphrey types eulogising the impartiality of 'the hidden wiring of our constitution', think on it.

Think on.

ps: This rant is entirely aimed at senior civil servants. In my own experience, whenever I dig around a piece of civil carelessness, you find a dedicated and hardworking individual who has been systematically defeated by their management. Lions led by donkeys. I repeat something buried in a previous posting: I'd like to see a Labour government do to this lot what the Tories did to the NUM.

1 comment:

Tim Worstall said...

I doubt very much that we are from the same point on the political compass. While I have a number of things in common with left libertarians I’m very firmly on the right (although I do rather despise the social authoritarians mind).

I spent too many years in Russia to be enamoured of socialism.

But I take your point about the Civil Service. I get to the small government position precisely because of Parkinson. As bureaucracies will, by their very nature, bloviate and metastatize, one needs to cut them back radically once a generation or so.

Doing an NUM on them? Ooooh, yes please, whatever your political motivation for doing so, you’ve got my support.