Whitehall is not working – and is in revolt

This week-end’s further details from the bunker that is Number 10 comes as no surprise to those of us who have studied the evolution of Cabinet, Prime Ministerial and official government in the last couple of decades. We can readily appreciate the picture of a Number 10 frantically issuing orders for a yet more initiatives and press releases, only to discover that little or nothing happens because they have not engaged the official machine and have not carried with them the relevant departments. You can feel the machinery straining against the politicisation, trivialisation and prostitution to the media schedules of so much of what they are asked to do.

I will remember the Labour years as years of hope dashed against the reality of incompetence. They tested to destruction two propositions. The first was that if politicians and their personal advisers took control of the old civil service information machinery they could write the newspapers and dictate to the 7 by 24 media the stories they wanted. Instead, as the gap between what they said and what was happening grew, the media became more critical, even downright hostile, despite all the spending on more and better spin doctors. They found out that they cannot fool all the people all the time, or even a majority of the people for most of the time, try as hard as they did. They just assumed the reality of government actions and experience would follow the optimstic press releases, without Ministers actively engaging day by day to persuade, shape, influence and control the output of their wayward, large complex and fast growing departments.

The second propositioin was that if they just hurled money at any problem, a largely unsupervised civil service would know how to spend it, and would fulfil their high level wishes. Equality would be furthered, child poverty abolished, inequality between schools and areas reduced or eliminated, the main public services transformed in quality and output by splashing the cash. If only. Once again, they have proven that if Ministers fail to engage with day to day management, to cajole, encourage, thank, reprove, and direct the spending of the money, it will not be well spent. Worse still, if Ministers just tell their departments to spend large sums before a year end, it is no wonder so much of it is wasted as officials seek to do their masters bidding without being able to spend it on things that might make a positive difference. To Labour, spending money is more important than outcomes. Efficiency has been a largely forgotten word.

So now ,according to sources close, we have a small group in Number 10 thinking up class warrior strategies, not trusting senior Cabinet colleagues or their departments, and trying to run so much from the centre without engaging the rest of government. This week-end Lord Mandelson seems to have both influence and interest again, so the Prime Minister has lurched towards posing as the friend of the middle classes, the very same people he was taxing and fighting so recently.No wonder Whitehall is bemused, or writing them off. To get the best out of the civil service Ministers have to have a clear sense of direction, to articulate it consistently and strongly,. and to check the important detail emerging from their departments to ensure it is contributing to the wider good and the strategic aims. There is little sign of any of that at the moment.


  1. Stuart Fairney
    January 18, 2010

    It is unsurprising that people with no experience of running any serious private sector organisation fail when they try to run a large department of state. Who exactly does this surprise?

    For example, if you asked either the head of a large supermarket or a primary school teacher to run the department of education, who would be the better at it? The answer seems mind-numbingly obvious. So the failure to appoint anyone to cabinet with any experience of the real world becomes ever more critical (Mr Cameron please note).

    Like you I suspect, I was amused at the lurch from class warrior last week to friend of the middle class this week. Chaotically funny.

  2. Norman
    January 18, 2010

    We should run a book – what hare-brained announcements will come out of No.10 in the next week? You really don't know what's coming next.

    After relentlessly attacking the middle classes by more and more taxes, as well as dipping their fingers into the pension funds, savings and equity in property via the printing of money fiasco they now say they are the friend of the middle classes! The sheer audacity to make such a statement. Will this new found love for the middle classes stop our profligate PM from one more run of the printing presses before election?

    They just seem to be throwing anything that anyone can think of out into the ether and seeing what comes back. If it appears chaotic to the man in the street I dread to think of the picture that the mandarins in Whitehall are seeing.

  3. tapestry
    January 18, 2010

    Stalin become Bean becomes (an authoritatarian-ed).

    A man for all treasons.

  4. no one
    January 18, 2010

    but blair did engage on some things

    he pretty much came up with the NHS IT programme around a whiteboard with a few advisors and rammed it down everyone elses throats, despite having no idea about designing complex computer systems, significant business change programmes, or the design of improvement mechanisms in large enterprises

    he threw money at it and proved once and for all top down command and control of businesses like the health business do not work

    blair and brown did engage on immigration rubber stamping the confetti like issuance of intra company transfer visas flooding the country with cheap labour from India and elsewhere, all working to learn as much as possible about our key intellectual property and move as much of our best projects off shore, and engaged with spinning the public in the opposite direction "british jobs for british workers" at the same time as atively working to mass produce visas flooding the country with workers

    blair and brown did engage with social seperation by making the only way for good parents to get a decent school for their kids moving to a decent catchement area, leaving those that could not move to ever worstening schools

    please tell us the conservatives are going to do something to give the power back to the citizens and protect us from such wild excess

  5. alan jutson
    January 18, 2010

    The sad fact is John that the plan you describe above, worked for so many years.

    The Press by and large swallowed the spin for years, believed that the money which was being pledged and spent was actually going to be of benefit, to improve so many things.

    As a consequence the good Press gave Labour 3 terms in Office, due to the fact that the General Public (enough of them) believed the Press.

    Many of the revelations which are now coming to light, are a shameful enlightenment of how Power corrupts, with self interest and Political dogma being pushed to the limits.

    I see we now (reported in the Press) have Baroness Uddin once again on the expenses gray train of second homes, for a second time. Clearly it would seem that she does not need to read the kiddies book on how to work out percentages which is reported to have been distributed to all Politicians recently to help them do simple maths.

    I assume a copy of the maths book has now gone to Mr Darling, Mr Brown and the rest of the Cabinet. Perhaps then we may get some realistic figures published in the future.

    The only hope this Country now has, is for Labour to be absolutely wiped out at the next General Election, so that its Politicians can never again inflict so much damage on our Country.

    We can only hope that the next Government is rather more measured and honest in the way that it conducts its business.

    Will we get it ????????

    1. Kevin Peat
      January 18, 2010

      Mr Cameron, of late, has certainly been making the right sounds with regard to social issues. Would he stick to these ideas in office ?

      The fact is that those with leftist agendas are always best placed to shout loudest and drown out the majority.

  6. Grumpy Optimist
    January 18, 2010

    Never before has there been such an obvious discrepancy between the skill a politician needs to get elected and stay elected and to actually deliver. Brown and Blair are past masters at creating fear and hope respectively – but neither as you say has run anything in their lives. I looked up Brown's biography on Wikepedia – the man has never EVER earned any money from any individual or company who is actually paying out of their own pocket.

    The other difference between politicians of the left and right is the former get high on just having a worthwhile morally elevating intention. You sometimes get the impression that the actual outcome does not matter very much. The right are much more practical and down to earth and grounded.

    1. Bob E
      January 18, 2010

      And they will all head to the House of Lords. For the House Of Lords is a benefits system for the upper classes.

      1. APL
        January 19, 2010

        Bob E: "For the House Of Lords is a benefits system for the upper classes."

        I think you are a little behind the times, The Lords is has been converted into a benefit system for useless failed politicians.

        I give you in no particular order:

        'Lord' Ashdown.
        'Lord' Kinnock
        'Lord' Mandleson

        and, in the interests of bipartianship the guy responsible for the most damage to the institution.

        Lord Strathclyde. For without his caputulation to Blair, much could have been saved.

    January 18, 2010

    Since the last time we commented here on Labour's ridiculous eye-catching initiatives and wasteful ways nothing has changed so, with prmission, we repeat those comments and yet again commend our final slogan to Conservatives in the forthcoming general election!

    THE ESSEX BOYS on 29 May 2009 at 8:00 am

    Returning to another of our old hobby horses we believe politicians in general – and of course this government in particular – encourage waste by always putting the horse (hobby breed or otherwise!) before the cart!
    Most government announcements – or the subsequent trumpet blowing in defence of what they are doing – major on the amount of taxpayers money they are to commit to any one of their eye-catching initiatives. ‘My government will be spending £x billion on blah, blah, boast, boast’!
    For God’s sake, it’s OUR money about which they’re ‘big-noting’ themselves and were we to have a say we would – like any sensible businessman or housewife – define the benefits and objectives before we sought to find the best method, expenditure level and price estimate of achieving the end result.
    By announcing the ‘budget’ in advance the floodgates are opened for every minister, civil servant and wily contractor to take us to the cleaners!
    The evidence is the depressing frequency with which this has occurred in recent years, most notably on IT projects and PFI contracts.
    We hope to witness with the next government a strategy that would strike a welcome and relevant chord with all we businessmen, housewives and struggling keepers of the household purse. We suggest a twist on the old song…

  8. Alan Wheatley
    January 18, 2010

    "….. they could write the newspapers and dictate to the 7 by 24 media the stories they wanted."

    It strikes me as inappropriate that the media should be the primary means of communication between, on the one hand, government, opposition and political parties in general, and, on the other hand, the electorate. The press and broadcasters in a free society should, of course, have independence to determine the messages they transmit, but then those with the message have to persuade those with the transmission means to transmit it. A results is 24/7 spin.

    We can now do much better: the BBC has more channels than it knows what to do with, and the internet is ubiquitous. So it is easy to move to a method where by government, opposition and parties can communicate directly with the electorate via both broadcast channels and multicasting networks. The media can then concentrate on a critical analysis of the message.

    Just because the government, opposition and parties are broadcasting and multicasting does not mean electors are watching and listening, but that is a problem for them and not the electors. The technology exists to enable those who want to receive to be able to do so in a variety of ways and at times of their choosing. Those with the message will need to ensure it is a message worth receiving: spin will get very poor audience figures.

  9. A.Sedgwick
    January 18, 2010

    More killer questions for DC at PMQs – I just hope he stops asking the boom and bust non questions.

  10. Lola
    January 18, 2010

    From day 1 I judged Blair and New Labour as just a great sales team with a crap product. My personal opinion is that there is absolutely nothing else to Blair – he's just a great rep.

    The scenario you describe fits right into this analysis. The customer was sold to. The product was overhyped and overpromised. The staff and workers were gee'd up with money and bonuses and power – none of it actually earned of course. And surprise surprise it's failed to deliver. Understandably so, when the purpose of the great sales team was not at all to deliver a great product or service to the customer but to acquire wealth and power for Newlabco. Now that the superstar rep and his back up have gone, and the company has been handed over to a dictatorial, incompetent and economically illiterate manager, with charisn'tma and no clue about management accounts and sales it's all fallen apart.

    And like all classic super-reps Blair got out, just before all the commission clawbacks consequent upon cancelled sales and delivery failures, would hit him personally.

    You cannot ever manipulate people into buying you product. You can motivate them to do so. But, by God, you'd better deliver a great product and/or great service or you'll never sell to them again. And where is the best source of new business? Your existing customers.

    BTW to be a great rep. is nothing to be ashamed of. Most of the most successful people I know are great reps. whatever their profession. But in all cases they under-promise and over-deliver a great product or service.

    New Labour and Blair/Brown; The Enron of British politics.

      January 19, 2010

      Analogy spot on Lola!
      When this Essex Boy first clapped eyes on Anthony Blair in 1995 whilst visiting the UK I immediately dubbed him ‘The Cream Puff’! I simply couldn't believe my pals' prediction that Blair would be the next PM.
      Well they were right about that but among the many millions who totally misread his ability and integrity. My consolation on returning to the UK in 1999 was that I very soon gained a tag as a Political Guru so fervently had the Blair/NuLabor project been welcomed by so many here.
      In Australia, however, hardly a soul understood why Major was so vilified when we looked at your economic numbers from 1992 (when much of the world had been in recession) to 1997.

      Let's hope Chilcot (delves more into Blair's motives for supporting the US in this war -ed)

      1. Lola
        January 21, 2010

        Nah. Chilcot's just another establishment stitch up.

  11. John C
    January 18, 2010

    "To Labour, spending money is more important than outcomes. "

    I agree with that John.

    I've been saying for years that Labour only talk about "investment". Gordon Brown is the worst at it. Yet, few political journalists have challenged them over the years.

    I fear that the great British public are so fickle that, after a couple of years of Tory rule, they will blame the Tories for all the cut backs that are going to be made.

    According to Labour mythology, the economy only grew after 1997 when Labour came to power. The majority of the public didn't really know (or forgot) that it was Ken Clark who made sensible policy decisions years before Gordon Brown became chancellor. Ken handed over a buoyant economy to Gordon. That cannot be said about 2010. I do not envy George Osborne – will he be this generation's Geoffrey Howe? I seem to remember he was not to popular in the early '80s.

  12. A Griffin
    January 18, 2010

    I used to think that this Labour government was just useless, but I now think they are evil. Spending money that you don't have and can't pay back is theft. The ever growing debt burden is stealing from our children and I think that is wicked.
    I keep thinking of the twins Ignorance and Want from A Christmas Carol. labour's policy has been driven by addressing Want in our society, by spending money and legalising 'rights' and imposing targets. Ignorance has been neglected as evidenced by the broken society, widening equality of opportunity gap and failing institutions.
    Dickens warns us that of the two, Ignorance is the most to be feared because "on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased". The 'Archbishop Cranmer' makes this point with his visual post yesterday.
    I shall vote Conservative at the next general election even if the sky has fallen in because this Labour government is unfit for purpose. Parliament is broken and the country is going down a blind alley.

  13. TonyP
    January 18, 2010

    Excellent article John.

    May I add one point which highlights how Ministers have ignored the Civil Service by the creation of the 1000+ Quangos that actually spend all the money and carry out the instructions of Ministers.

    As an example, you would expect the Department of Health to control the regional Strategic Health Authorities but I am quite convinced that it has little or no influence.

    Certainly whenever a Parliamentary question is asked about any aspect of SHA spending the answer always is that the DoH does not have the information!

    Is this open government? I think not.

  14. startledcod
    January 18, 2010

    I remember having a conversation with a Conservative Minister who preceeded even your time John and he was describing to me some of what was involved in holding a Ministerial brief and more importantly making a success of it.

    Two things I remember were required were a fierce intelligence and the ability to work very, very hard. He described the slog of doing the red boxes properly and also the hard work and ingenuity required to advance one's own agenda. Does this ring true to you?

    I cannot remember exactly when it was but not long after 1997 I heard Robin Cook almost boasting that he didn't always get to the bottom of his red boxes and he was one of the brighter of the New Labour Ministers. It set the alrm bells ringing.

  15. Bob E
    January 18, 2010

    When Targets replace Trust you discard loyalty.
    Let people control their own responsibilities without madarins sat on their shoulders.

  16. Javelin
    January 18, 2010

    Brown and his mates are simpy too thick and lazy.

    No amount of spin can hide that.

  17. Little Black Censore
    January 18, 2010

    In testing the first of those two principles to destruction have Labour managed to damage the process of government permanently? Will the Conservatives be able to put the clock back, or are lying, news management, and a politicized civil service to be henceforth permanent features of our political life? I am not optimistic.

  18. David Belchamber
    January 18, 2010

    Adding – worryingly – to your article from today's Telegraph:

    "Meanwhile, a Whitehall audit has found that Treasury mandarins lack the experience and skills necessary to oversee Britain's economy and financial system".

    If the Conservatives are going into battle under the heading of something like: "Mending Broken Britain", the above state of affairs is indeed worrying.

  19. Jim Pearson
    January 18, 2010

    Has anyone seen Lord Tebbits blog in the Telegraph, it mixes well with this one. I agree with the blog today, and think that running a book on the next announcement is great. My prediction is that GB anounces that he's saved Haiti, and thus deserves Sainthood, or another term. Any takers?

  20. Emil
    January 18, 2010


    All very, very true except the sad fact is that far too much of the media still dances to Labour's tune and Brown, by and large, gets a much easier ride than he deserves, whilst everything anyone from your party says, or Mr Cameron doesn't say, is analysed and criticised to the smallest detail. The BBC remain completely in Brown's pocket, and even Sky News is infested by obvious Labour sympathisers, who regard the likes of McGuire and Pound as heroes during press reviews.

  21. Mike Stallard
    January 18, 2010

    The first two paragraphs of the blog are, of course, truthful.
    1997 is when the Times turned into a Labour Party manifesto and when the BBC stopped being impartial. I have also noticed that the Mail didn't cow tow. that is why all the left wing funnies (who went to Public School, of course) find the Mail so disgusting.
    And we are now in debt somewhat as a country.
    The last paragraph makes me think. What is the current class system? How about this (from the top):
    1. Working class (pronounced "Ass"). People with an income of over £70,000 per annum.
    2. The vulnerable class: Immigrants (including preachers of hate), sexual deviants (except paedos), disabled, kiddies, worthy and unworthy poor people, single mums, anyone who receives public money in fact. Many of these have postal votes for the Labour party which CARES all over them.
    3. HM the Queen and Royal Family (cute and good for press releases).
    4. The Middle Class (pronounced "A*se"): people with less than £70,000 who used to be able to afford Public Schools, BUPA, travel, a house, a Home for Mum and who could look forward to a job for life. They also used to be called "the bourgeois", the scourge of the working class.
    5. Chavs: drunk, lying in the gutter in the early hours, sexual habits of dogs, tattoos, illiterate and innumerate – and that's only the girls!

  22. brian kelly
    January 18, 2010

    The problems with labour are manifold – just too many to list. But regarding J. Redwood's article one basic problem is that virtually no minister has the slightest experience or clue of their department's function – the vast majority are just placement. Secondly, most are incompetent, in any case, and many lazy and do not spend their time working hard on the proper functioning of their department. Third, the overarching atmosphere is short termism, looking for good headlines and party politics [continually watching one's back is an ever present requirement]. And crucially, they set out to short circuit the civil service and bring in their own 'experts' to run things. They have much to answer for and the sooner we get back to the time honoured conventions the better.

  23. Adrian Peirson
    January 24, 2010

    This is all by design, FCO Documents reveal that in the EU's endgame, National parliaments must be seen to decline in prestige while the prestige of the EU must be seen to increase in the eyes of the public.

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