Incompetence is this government’s middle name

The data loss at the Revenue has done one good thing. It has made the world wake up to a problem frequently highlighted on this blogsite the incompetence and waste of the UK public sector. Perhaps now we can have a proper discussion of how the public sector can be changed to give us a better service at a lower cost.

So many things have to change before we have a smaller and more effective public sector. Government has to stop prying into so many facets of our lives, and move away from the idea that Whitehall can manage all the schools, hospitals, police stations and other public facilities from the centre.

This government treats new legislation as just another press release, pushing too many Bills through Parliament at breakneck speed without proper scrutiny, only to fail to implement them or make them work properly. We need to legislate less, and legislate better. We need to reduce the volume of legislation on the books, and make sure what is left is well drafted and effective.

This government treats a press announcement of some new initiative as mission accomplished. Instead we need Ministers who understand that announcing a new measure is just an early step in a long journey. Successful Ministers have to supervise the implementation, and make sure the measure works and is well administered.

This government has introduced higher pay with performance elements for senior staff. The problem is the performance elements are not well designed, allowing too many staff to achieve the criteria for the pay out even when the underlying service is poor or when major errors occur. There needs to be an overhaul of performance pay, containing a personal element and a service wide element, and there needs to be tougher adjudication of whether the criteria have been met before making any payment.

Ministers need to take more interest in how their departments run, and learn to be clearer in setting objectives and sticking to them. Whitehall’s target driven culture does not work because there are too many targets and too many changes. Most departments do not know what winning means. If you set a department or an individual five targets you can assess their achievement and hold them to them. If you set them 100 targets they are off the hook, as no-one expects they can hit all 100, and there will be contradictions between the differing targets giving people a good argument as to why they have failed to hit any particular one.

We need to blend the best of the public sector ethos, with the best of the performance orientation of the private sector in a new way of managing the public service. Wherever possible the public service should have a choice of supplier. Where something is done in house it should be done by people who want to do more with less, not by people who think their aim in life is to spend more money and employ more people whatever the issue before them.

Old initiatives in Whitehall never die, they just fade into the background. When a Minister wants the department to do something new, he or she will be told it needs more staff and more money. He should reply that he wishes to shift money and staff from the old initiative that is no longer required, rather than allowing those officials to slip into the background but remain on the payroll for the old purpose.

The public sector is cost plus it always assumes dearer is better, and lower cost is impossible. The competitive private sector company either delivers more for less or perishes.

The public sector is regulation plus it always takes the longest way round to comply with its own regulations, is slow moving and cumbersome.

The public sector can be very jobs worth. Ministers have created a cynicism in their staff, which leads staff to think the best course of action is to argue This problem is not within my power?, or This issue is not within my budget? or I am going on holiday tomorrow so why bother to start this today? All too often my constituents ring public sector phone lines that are off the hook or permanently engaged. All too often they find the hours for client contact are very limited, data gets lost, phone calls go unrecorded. It is all evidence of a service which is badly led and does not have to compete to keep customers.

Senior staff are often moved around too much. As soon as a senior official gets to know his or her job they are likely to be promoted or moved sideways into a different role. Whilst career progression and development are important, if you change them every couple of years you never have people in post with high levels of experience. It means no-one is ever accountable for anything, as no-one has been in post long enough to have set it up and created the problems that occur. We need to slow down the movement, and give people incentive pay when they do a good job and have the experience to do it better.

We need a new generation of Ministers who wish to work with the civil service, but who wish to lead it to higher standards and less waste . These Ministers like making the announcements and appearing on TV and radio, but often do not help the civil service do the serious work of designing a good policy in the first place, and sorting out the detail of implementation and administration after the announcement. As a result they have allowed shoddy standards in too many cases, and bought the line that appointing more people will solve problems that require thought and management, not more staff.

If you have too many people in an organisation it becomes difficult to manage. The civil service is both too large and too little motivated. It sums up New Labour good at spin, hopeless at managing the government.

You don’t get much for ??550 billion these days. You just get a load of targets, a load of undigested new laws, and some very prosperous private sector consultants who are brought in to almost everything to sort out the mess or do the real work.

Did you notice there will be another consultancy contract as a result of the date loss? Poor old taxpayers.


  1. Tony Makara
    November 24, 2007

    Too much bureaucracy, too many departments, making it too easy to pass the responsibility, too little accountablity, the list is endless. The public services need to be trimmed down with all non-essential features eradicated. The data discs fiasco could have been avoided with one person sensibly asking that the discs be delivered by a police outrider. A small price to pay to protect the security of 25 million people. The Labour government has tried to shift the blame onto the little people working on the front line but the blame lies squarely with the Labour government who have shown incompetence far too often for it to be considered bad luck or mere coincidence.

  2. Mike H
    November 24, 2007

    Doesn't the problem of staff rotation go beyond the senior civil servants? One wonders how those senior civil servants in Whitehall cope with the regular turnover in their ministerial government masters. Every few months they're faced with a new boss to train and, because that new minister inevitably wants to make his mark on his new department, probably a whole new set of 'initiatives' to cope with as well.

    We could do with fewer new announcements (they're usually empty anyway), a lot less change and a lot more focus on delivering competent services that represent good value for money.

  3. Bazman
    November 25, 2007

    Heard on the news that the twenty four billion lent to the 'company' Northern Rock might not be paid back.
    The Trident weapons system cost "thirteen billion and rising" and employed at one point fifteen thousand people in real jobs. I mean 'real' in the sense of real wages.
    Five hundred and fifty billion? Just words.

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