Monday, November 26, 2007

Professonal misdirection

The World This Weekend on Radio 4 yesterday asked..."...is there a fundamental problem with the way that politicians interact with civil servants?"

Sir Christopher Foster - a long-standing adviser on economic policy - thought that this was a problem that has built up over twenty five years. His list of problems would not appear unfamiliar to anyone who has given this issue a sideways glance:
  • too many initiatives,
  • too many reorganisations,
  • not enough planning,
  • many more pieces of legislation.
  • too much micro-managing by politicians,
  • the overconfidence of politicians in their own abilities
... and of course, the relationship with the media.

And that's all well and good. But - again - why do politicians feel the need to constantly try new initiatives? Generally, if they aren't being seen to over-react to almost everything, they can expect a well-organised personal campaign against them from any one of a few thousand professional pressure groups.

An unwillingness to either comply - or loudly denounce - any one of these initiatives - will rapidly result in that career-ending verdict: 'Out of touch.'

And should the relatively small cadre of ministers in central government really be spending longer planning for difficulties? Surely, that's what the professionals in Whitehall are for?

Also, why do politicians feel the need to micro-manage everything? Is there really an 'overconfidence' in their own abilities?

Or is this the result of a well-observed lack of confidence among politicians that civil servants will do anything at all about public concerns unless they have a bossy minister breathing down their necks? Do ministers rapidly draw the conclusion that anything that they want doing, they will have to do themselves?

The problems, of course, are plain to see.

Ministers have to make decisions that are too big. Strong devolved regional government would massively reduce the pressure.

Civil servants don't share ministers desires to be seen to be governing. Quite the opposite. When the public want to see action, sometimes they need to be shown action. This is inevitable, surely, in a democracy? Yet, as long as we have a permanent (and amateur) civil service, this problem will always be with us.

We need a larger number of political appointments, and a culture of specialism that all of the parties can draw on and recruit from. This may improve the quality of ministers that we have to put up with as well.

And as long as pressure groups and the media are indulged in the way that they currently are, even the best ministers and the most competent and professional of bureaucracies will continue to command little confidence among the voters.

And as long as we have a media that is prepared to connive with overpaid Mandarins to discuss these problems entirely in the context of politicians' failings (why wasn't Sir Christopher given the kind of mullering that is usually reserved for a minister?), I doubt if anyone will spend much time thinking about the causes of poor administration in this country.

3 comments:

mikeovswinton and the reebok said...

Some good points, there, I think Paulie. Your comment about devolved regional government is, I think, quite useful. But you may recall that it ran aground in the North East, basically due to the anti-campaign arguing against devolution that involved "more politicians and bureaucrats". I didn't often see eye to eye with the late Anthony H. Wilson of these parts (he was a Man Utd fan, and just for once I can have a smile at that, especially in the light of the drivel being written and spoken about the great Kevin Davies). But he did have a point when he noted that if you wanted democratic regional government then you would be pushed to get it without "politicians and bureaucrats".

Paulie said...

But *would* it necessarily result in more politicians and bureaucrats?

I don't think that this is a foregone conclusion.

mikeovswinton said...

Agreed, but his point, I think, was that in a democracy you have to have "politicians and bureaucrats". We actually have the "bureaucrats" already - the various "Government Offices" - but they aren't overseen by directly elected (and hence potentially "de-electable")politicians. I think we are singing from the same hymn sheet here. I guess the point is how to meet the argument against elected regional government.