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Not particularly civil and not much of a service

Posted by Helen Tuesday, January 16, 2007 ,

Whenever I get particularly depressed about the state of the world, which all too frequently coincides with my reading an article or two in one of the British newspapers, particularly the Daily Telegraph (I see the Guardian as a charmingly old-fashioned institution, all delicate and cobwebby) all I have to do is read some of the comments on the articles and I begin to feel that not all is lost.

The truth is that every fewer people seem to be taken in by the great and the good and are not afraid to say so. This is definitely the case with the comments to Lord Wilson of Dinton’s somewhat self-serving piece in today’s Telegraph.

His rather grand assurances that practically everything is going well with the civil service, reforms are being put into place and the so-called politicization of it under this government has been contained are all met with disdain from readers. I shall not quote from the responses as it is better to read them in full but I do have one or two quibbles with Lord Wilson’s assertions.

Of course, the suggestion that the numbers of civil servants have gone down or, rather, as he quite cunningly puts it, went down in the nineties and have, one must assume, stayed down, is nonsense. We know that there are ever more of them and, when it is not directly employed bureaucrats we talk about, then it is quangos and agencies staffed by formerly directly employed bureaucrats.

Nor do I, or others, find the following particularly impressive:

The Service has done its best to change while remaining true to its traditional values of integrity, selection on merit and political impartiality. Work by Mori shows that over the past two decades, when trust in most professions has not changed, there has been a noticeable rise in trust in civil servants.
Mori must have interviewed an audience made up exclusively of civil servants.

Let us remove from the argument the issues that Lord Wilson as a former Head of Civil Service cannot touch or circles round in an entirely self-satisfied fashion.
A proper analysis of the performance of government over the last half century would be instructive. There have been real achievements: sustained peace and prosperity for more than 50 years, improvements in the macro-management of the economy, and many areas of particular success such as, say, the privatisation programme or the performance of our Armed Forces. Civil servants can claim a part in these achievements.

But there have also been areas, which have proved intractable. Health, transport, education and law and order – the top priorities of new Labour 10 years ago – are good examples. Is it just that the quality of civil servants is lower in these areas than in those which have been successful? There is no evidence to support this. The answer is more complex.
I must say I am getting a little tired of all these people claiming that they are responsible for the peace and prosperity of the last 50 years. If it is not the EU, it is the civil service, though, of course, there is a close connection between the two. All those achievements have been accomplished despite the civil service and in the teeth of its determined opposition. As for the performance of our Armed Forces, as undermined by our Civil Servants, I refer our readers to the numerous postings done by my colleague on the subject.

So we come to the intractable problems. Oddly enough, they are in those fields that are still in the dead hands of the bureaucrats and ones that they are hanging on to for dear life.

The question of political impartiality is one that concerns Lord Wilson and other civil servants. It has been a constantly repeated mantra that everything was just grand with our impartial civil service, recruited entirely on merit until the nasty Blair government came in and started politicizing it. Hmmm, yes and no.

Undoubtedly, the Labour government, convinced that the civil service is basically Tory in its sympathies (what a quaint old-fashioned notion that is, to be sure) has tried to impose various political commissars in the various departments and ministries. It did not work out terribly well, since every effort to do so, just like every effort to spin news stories immediately became known to the media.

In parenthesis, let me note that I have never understood why people think that NuLab is so good at spin. A really good spinmeister is not seen or noticed. Hundreds and thousands of complete innocents used to repeat the Comintern line as put forward by Willi Münzenberg without having the first idea where those words had come from. Hundreds and thousands of complete innocents still do so. Now that is spin. Alistair Campbell’s pathetic efforts do not measure up to that.

Nor is it precisely true that the civil service was not political before 1997. At best it may have been not party political and there is a good deal to be said for a civil service that will work for whichever party happens to be in power. But anyone who has ever watched “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”, four highly realistic series, will recall that Sir Humphrey and his colleagues and minions always had an agenda of their own. Sometimes several.

The more managerial the governance of this country has become, the greater the role of the civil servants. It is still theoretically true that “advisers advise and ministers decide” but an enormous proportion of what the ministers decide on is unknown and incomprehensible to them.

Legislation is not done by Parliament for most of the time but through detailed negotiations, conducted for the most part by civil servants and quango employees and implemented by same in this country. That gives civil servants a political standing far superior to any press officer or political adviser nominated by Blair, Prescott or anyone else of the motley crew might have.

Interestingly enough, the Institute of Economic Affairs has just reprinted one of its seminal publications of the seventies: Gordon Tullock’s “The Vote Motive”.

Professor Tullock is one of the leading theoreticians of public choice, an idea that, no doubt, produces vapours in Lord Wilson of Ditton. Briefly put, the theory discarded the idea that while private business was motivated by profit only (oh my, pass the smelling salts), the public sector thought only in terms of the public good.

Given the rather handsome salaries and pensions commanded by members of the public sector, as studied and published by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the argument of having the public good at heart becomes every weaker.

The public choice theory goes further than that:
It drops the conventional assumption that politicians and bureaucrats try to serve only ‘the public interest’ and more realistically assumes that, as elsewhere, they try to serve their own interests by, for example, re-election and empire-building. The vote motive in politics is the profit motive in industry.
With the difference that the profit motive creates wealth for the rest of the country and beyond it.

However much Lord Wilson might extol the reform of the civil service, he is unlikely to do anything but huff and puff and exclaim with disgust over such words as competition if the following suggestion is put:
In bureaucracies self-interest would tend to coincide with the public interest if, as in industry, they disclosed more information and were subject to competition from other bureaucracies and private producers.
In other words we are not talking of decisions being taken at the “appropriate level”, as decided by the civil servants themselves but genuine openness and competition. And up with that no civil servant will put unless force is exerted.