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Britain may not be broken, to borrow an opposition slogan, but it is badly managed. Contrary to national myths, its civil service is not a Rolls-Royce institution and the NHS, its 75th anniversary marked with a church service, is not the envy of the world.
There are two overarching themes behind the malaise — money and management. The first is well understood: the demands citizens now make of the state exceed their readiness to pay for them. Without sustained economic growth or a sudden enthusiasm for tax rises, the squeeze can only tighten.
These constraints are focusing minds on the second point. The inertia of the permanent civil service lies at the root of frustration but reforming the machinery of government is unrewarding territory for politicians. Debate is often reduced to oafish calls for a purge on “pencil pushers”. And yet, for all the many fine officials, the poor management of the state is a block on ambitions and will be even more keenly felt as politicians grapple with the challenges around AI.
In 2020, Michael Gove, then cabinet office minister, led calls for a more effective state, lamenting: “Of the 108 major programmes for which government is responsible, only eight per cent are assessed to judge if they have been delivered effectively and have brought about the desired effects.” But the impetus for change was lost amid the demands of Brexit and the pandemic.
Tory criticisms have been fuelled by Brexit rows but cannot be dismissed as simply the smears of snarling Leavers. Successive governments have shared frustration at the slow pace of delivery, seeking new ways to drive change from the centre. Tony Blair established a delivery unit, more recently attempts to build a prime minister’s department have foundered. Kate Bingham’s success, coming from outside Whitehall to run the Covid vaccine task force, was also a lesson for those resisting change.
This week sees the latest effort as Francis Maude, former Tory cabinet minister finalises his civil service review. Arguing that ministers are responsible for delivery but have too little power to effect it, he is likely to call for a beefed-up civil service regulator to hold departments and top officials to account for meeting core tasks.
He will recommend giving ministers more say in senior appointments. Critics worry about creeping politicisation and fear the move will leave officials fearful of offering unwelcome advice. Maude argues it will advance talent, build more “robust” debate and that departments must not be “neutral” about implementing a government’s programme. Some expect him to suggest splitting the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, leaving the former to focus on strategic priorities.
But reform must go deeper. Every decade brings a new plan for change, each a testimony to the failings of its predecessors. The critique remains the same: too many lifers and generalists, and a career structure that breeds groupthink. Whitehall needs more technologists, project managers and data scientists.
In 2020/21 around 18 per cent of new entrants to the senior ranks were external hires. But Maude talks of the “tissue rejection” often felt by outsiders. The service struggles to recruit specialists. Salary is a major deterrent. One ex-minister notes that in areas such as AI, Whitehall might offer £70,000 to people whose expertise can command 10 times that in the private sector. Maude speaks approvingly of Singapore’s model but its salaries are very high. Paying more for great civil servants — for any public servant — is an argument politicians are loath to make.
The NHS, the UK’s largest employer, is also grotesquely undermanaged, a point emphasised in a recent paper by Sam Freedman and Rachel Wolf. It notes that Britain spends less than half the OECD average as a proportion of GDP on management and administration of the NHS. Health reforms veer wildly between operational independence and more top-down targets. There are good people at the top but unit managers are too often driven by demands from Westminster rather than local needs. The NHS must respond to the opportunities offered by AI and vast data troves, yet many doubt it has the people to lead this revolution.
There is, however, one other point of failure — weak ministers. Prime ministers will inevitably have to manage rivals and balance factions but too many people are being appointed to jobs for which they are ill-suited. Many have no experience of management, or lack the knowledge to challenge advice while the political carousel sees many move before they acquire it. Politicians are too quick to reach for micromanagement and headline-grabbing gimmicks.
Change also requires an end to the noxious Tory attacks denigrating civil servants as “the blob” and scapegoating officials when ill-considered policies collide with reality.
If all this were easy, it would have happened. Culture change is slow and hard and there are always more urgent priorities but the consensus for reform grows. There is, of course, waste to trim but good management is also expertise; a case must be made for spending on quality leaders and specialists.
As government becomes more complex, the need for reform has never been more apparent. From politicians to officials to public services, the management of the state is struggling to meet the needs of the nation.