A good word for the civil service

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Those of us doomed to spend our days implementing public policy often complain that the controls seem disconnected from the engine - and the engine from the wheels. "Joined-up government" prompts many a sigh of longing.

Consistent dissatisfaction can sometimes leave one feeling insecure. "Am I right or am I in a minority of one?"

Among the summer's delights were two publications which will have reassured thousands of public servants and civil servants that their frustrations were real. Not only is the Home Office unfit for purpose - in the words of the Home Secretary - but much of the rest of the civil service is in the same state.

That was the conclusion of "Whitehall's Black Box", a compelling argument for reform by the Institute for Public Policy Research and - between the lines at least - of the first of Sir Gus O'Donnell's departmental capability reviews.

You and I in our guise of querulous taxpayer might well wonder how it can be that the whole civil service could be seen as in want of modern corporate governance, greater clarity of accountability and a good dose of rigorous performance management. I have the answer.

"Whitehall's Black Box" reveals that the Home Office of the 18th century consisted of a Home Secretary, ten civil servants and a clerk. By 1913, when the seminal Northcote-Trevelyan reforms which largely set the pattern for the civil service of today had had a half century or so to bite, the Home Office consisted of a Home Secretary and 28 civil servants.

Today John Reid presides, directly or through sundry agencies and non-departmental public bodies, over a workforce of 70,000. It's a bit like going to bed as the manager of a corner shop and waking up horrified to discover you're running Tesco. No wonder the shelves are sometimes devoid of Wensleydale and the checkout jockeys can't count the change.

My sympathy for John Reid, his permanent secretary David Normington and their brothers and sisters-in-distress across Whitehall, is now boundless.

If you have ever visited Chinon in the Loire valley, you will have walked up its unspoilt medieval main street to the spot where Joan of Arc miraculously picked out the Dauphin, despite his being disguised among his courtiers.

You will have passed small houses with faded signs above their doors: 'Minist re des landes et des forets' and so on. This is where the government of France spent the summers. These little buildings sufficed to house the handful of public servants who ran the country. That's what government once looked like.

Before you rush off and sign up for the extreme wing of the American Republican party, as a convert to "small government", let me remind you that there might have been one or two drawbacks to living in medieval France, or even Edwardian England.

When you travelled, you did so on unmetalled roads and, in earlier times at least, you took your life in your hands. The highwaymen who infested Heathrow on the road to Bath and Bristol were notoriously rapacious.

When you got sick you died unless you could pay. Even then you only got leeches and a brisk decoction of rhubarb instead of the NHS. If you were a crook you either spent a day or two having unpleasant substances and the odd rock chucked at you by your fond neighbours or you were summarily offed.

Nobody worried about your human rights in prison and whether you were given the job skills to stop you doing it again. The only people who went to jail were the politically imprudent rich or folk who were being made taller to persuade them to talk.

No social services. No old age pensions. No unemployment benefits. No public education. No universities except Oxford and Cambridge training Church of England clerics. No street lights. No police. No fire service. No ambulances. No public service radio and television. No standing armed services. No nothing.

Oh, and something you were all asking for, no taxes and precious few civil servants.

The nation state is changing. We may well have what is quaintly named a democratic deficit. Apparently, the ratio of voters to elected representatives is about 1:150 in France (think village mayor, with a proper budget), 1:300 in Germany and 1:5,000 or so here. That's one reason why we think nothing joins up.

But another is that the all-knowing Sir Humphrey is dead and gone. We rightly distrust the American idea of every new president appointing his old buddies and political fellow travellers as top civil servants for the duration. We don't have 'Les X' - the graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration to run the show, ignoring the comings and goings of variously corrupt politicians, as do the French.

We'll have to work it out for ourselves. While what we have now is worse than it ought to be, it is a lot better than we fear it might be.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning InspectorateWhitehall's Black Box: Accountability and performance in the senior civil service by Guy Lodge and Ben Rogers, Institute for Public Policy Research

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