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Why Government is Failing - by Nick Busvine for Briefings for Britain - 04.01.23

Nick Busvine reflects on the growing public perception that government is failing and looks at whether the leadership of the civil service should be held more publicly accountable for departmental delivery.

Post Segments

  • The triumph of process over delivery

  • Groupthink

  • Loss of impartiality

  • Disdain for democracy

  • Conclusion

The pessimism about the UK’s prospects during the coming year is almost tangible and is coupled with a level of scepticism about the ability of the government to overcome the manifold challenges we face that I cannot remember seeing since the late 1970s. The global financial crisis and Iraq shook our collective confidence in the system in the early noughties. Now, all sorts of other problems are piling up: inflation induced by lockdown money printing and Ukraine-related energy price hikes – which has forced a sharp upward turn in global interest rates; inflation-linked strikes and industrial unrest; an NHS that sucks in ever more resources without improving outcomes; illegal immigrants crossing the channel with apparent impunity; the poorly planned transition to Net Zero, with the prospect of blackouts when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow; the integrity of the Union, with the most immediate threat stemming from the failure to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol issue – the list goes on and on.

All these issues, whether external or internal, require a government response. Pulling together a credible strategy to tackle these challenges is hardly going to be straightforward. One can forgive Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for having taken time to reflect before announcing his priorities for the coming year on 4 January. A key early test of progress will be the local elections in May. As a councillor in Sevenoaks, I have to report that the mood of the troops in West Kent is decidedly downbeat. However good a job our dedicated crew have done for our local community, we know that we are extremely vulnerable to a national protest vote. Looking beyond May, if Sunak’s administration fails to get traction, then there is every chance that the Tories will be absolutely hammered at the next general election.

Personally, I reckon that if the Tories cannot get their act together, we will deserve the kicking we get from the voters. That is what it means to be democratically accountable. In my case, someone else will have to take on responsibility for keeping our local theatre going, getting the best out of our public open spaces and implementing the local neighbourhood plan. That is democracy in action. I supported Brexit precisely because, for me, the ability of ordinary voters to hold politicians and their governments to account trumps all other considerations. I also consider that, in the long run, we will reap considerable economic benefits from Brexit, provided that we make the right policy choices and apply them effectively. Concerted Remoaner efforts to claim that Brexit has already imposed massive economic damage on the UK economy have already been comprehensively rebutted in a string of articles on this site – and, most notably, by Graham Gudgin, Julian Jessop and Harry Western in a brilliant paper that has been widely cited in national media and is now heading towards 40,000 views.

That said, Brexit means that it is now on us, the UK, to deliver.

We can no longer blame unaccountable technocrats in Brussels seeking to impose regulatory frameworks that are contrary to our own economic interests. But is our ruling elite ready to take responsibility for delivery? Or is it just too tempting now to take the easy route and blame everything on Brexit? One wonders, perhaps unfairly, whether many of the great and the good would be much more comfortable sub-contracting the administrative heavy lifting to Brussels, while they focus on virtue-signalling initiatives that promise much more than they deliver. As George Bernard Shaw once pointed out, ‘Liberty means responsibility, that is why most men dread it.’ I fear that institutionally we grew rather too accustomed to out-sourcing large chunks of government to Brussels. It may well be that parts of the UK administrative machine will have to re-learn what constitutes good government – or develop systems that are better suited to addressing the policy challenges of the new era.

The secret to success in any organisation – in the public or private sector – is consistently good decision-making, underpinned by a strong organisational culture and an absolute commitment to delivery. Government policy and decision-making is based on interplay between elected politicians and their civil servants. I was brought up to believe in an administrative system in which ministers took responsibility for their departments. In the event of a serious departmental failure, it was for the minister concerned to accept responsibility for that failure – and resign if necessary. This convention is admirable in principle, but only works properly if a number of conditions are fulfilled. For one thing, the minister needs to be in a position to exert a certain degree of policy control if they are going to take full responsibility for the performance of their department (- How often have we read stories in the media about ministers pulling the levers of power, only to find that nothing happens?). The system also pre-supposes that the civil service is both impartial and effective. But is it impartial and effective? And who holds it to account when things go wrong?

While ministers strive, quite rightly, not to lump blame for failure onto their civil servants, it is becoming painfully obvious that it is too simplistic to ascribe failures of public administration exclusively to the politicians. In one recent piece on the problems besetting the NHS, a frustrated commentator asked: ‘Who is actually in charge of this shambles? It is widely, though wrongly, assumed that the Health Secretary runs the NHS but he has little power, as Steve Barclay is the latest to find out. NHS England has a management structure with the invisible Amanda Pritchard at its apex as chief executive. Does she have any clout and if so what is she doing? Or must we look to the chairmen and boards of the hospital trusts, since it is here where the biggest problem lies, the so-called “handover” of patients with nowhere to go.’

It is also clear that widespread concern about manifest internal departmental weakness doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Way back in 2006, Home Secretary John Reid complained that the immigration directorate was ‘not fit for purpose’. It still isn’t – but that didn’t stop the current top official at the Home Office being awarded a knighthood in the New Year honours list. Ennoblement, knighthoods and gongs go with the turf for the leadership of our civil service – and, more often than not, reflect seniority rather than delivery. In my day as a diplomat overseas, it was illustrative that ambassadors would devote a disproportionate amount of their time to preparing for a visit by the Queen for the simple reason that it meant an almost guaranteed knighthood. In short, I think there is a strong argument to be made that we are far too complacent about the effectiveness of our civil service machine.

For the full eight page article in pdf, please click here:

Why Government is Failing - by Nick Busvine for Briefings for Britain - 04.01.23
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Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick also serves as a local town Councillor in Sevenoaks and as a gliding instructor.

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