Richard Bacon is a member of the Public Account Committee and MP for South Norfolk.
The education expert Sir Michael Barber once observed that the “How” question is relatively neglected in the writing of history and politics. A textbook would say of some medieval king that “he gathered an army and hastened north” without pausing to consider just how difficult that was to do. Yet when governments embark on anything new, it is quite normal for things not to turn out as planned – and the problems are nearly always to do with the “How” question.
We have seen an NHS dental contract which left large numbers of people without a dentist; a new system for marking school tests where up to three quarters of the marking was wrong; a pension regulatory body which had no objectives; and an urban regeneration project which had no budget. People have died because flawed hospital computer systems meant they were not told about their next vital check-up until it was too late. Holidays have been ruined because the Passport Office couldn’t issue passports on time.
Ministers routinely enter office with no knowledge of why things have gone wrong so often in the past. Few civil servants are around long enough to tell them. After only 18 months as an education minister in charge of academies policy, Andrew Adonis found he had been in post longer than any of the officials who were supposed to be advising him. The Department for Transport somehow managed to have four permanent secretaries in two years.
Given the track record, one might expect the quality of government spending to be a matter of sustained national concern. One can’t say “Oh, that’s management” and expect someone else to do it. It turns out that the “How” question can seriously affect the “What” question or even “Whether” anything happens at all.
The case for examining much more closely the quality of what we are doing has never been stronger. In a rapidly changing world there is an almost perfect storm of problems. As we get better at keeping people alive longer, we face inexorable rises in the cost of pensions and healthcare systems. As our population gets older and the tax base shrinks, our need to invest in better infrastructure – including better broadband connections, roads, railways and airports – only grows more urgent. We have an ongoing skills crisis. Our people need to be more numerate, literate and IT-savvy.
We also know that if we can’t help the world’s people in situ they will instead come to us, compounding the pressures we already face. And we grapple with all these problems while struggling under a growing mountain of public debt, because successive governments seem quite unable to live within their means.
Squeezing much more out of the lemon is simply essential. We know that our governments must cost us less while being much more efficient and effective, to help us to deliver the changes we need. All this is probably common ground among most political parties, but the truth is that we are very bad at learning from our mistakes. Many politicians, civil servants and journalists are more interested in getting on with the next policy initiative, the next project or the next story.
Who is responsible for all this failure? Many screw-ups are plainly the result of poor decisions by ministers, who either try to do things too quickly or who won’t listen. Officials advising ministers on the Common Agricultural Policy were explicit that using the “dynamic hybrid” method for calculating single farm payments would be “madness” and a “nightmare” to administer; ministers chose it anyway
But what about civil servants? When managers at the Learning and Skills Council failed to count the money for the FE Colleges building programme while handing it out – thus pledging billions of pounds which they didn’t have – John Denham, the then Skills and Innovation Secretary, said grimly that “there was a group of people that we might have expected to know what was going on who did not themselves have a full grasp of it”. In the InterCity West Coast franchising competition, the officials in charge at the Department for Transport were unaware of advice from external lawyers that the Department’s actions were unlawful.
The reality is that there is more than enough blame to go around. We need to spend less time blaming and more time seeking to understand what is going on.
For sure, it is down to the Civil Service and its accounting officers to make sure there is a system that works. As Richard Heaton, Head of the Cabinet Office put it: “It is our job, without ministerial pushing, to create a civil service that has the capabilities that the Government need”. But what should a civil servant do when a powerful minister is on the rampage and demanding the impossible? The epic scale of the failures should tell us that the problem is systemic. We will only solve the problem when we stop looking in the wrong place. As Bill Clinton nearly said: “It’s behaviour, stupid.”
What about the behaviour of civil servants and ministers? And the behaviour of Parliamentarians? What if you have a civil servant running an IT project whom no one dares challenge? Or a team of civil servants foisted on a project without the right skills? What should you do when you have a permanent secretary and a Cabinet minister who barely talk to each other for months?
If we really want better outcomes, then understanding this – and changing it – is much more important even than policymakers’ efforts at “influencing” the behaviour of citizens. Economics has seen a big shift towards studying how people actually behave, rather than how they are supposed to behave. We need a similar shift inside government and politics. The London 2012 Olympics showed we can get it right. The outstanding feature of the Olympics, as Head of Programme Control David Birch put it, was that “we worked hard to generate and recognise one source of truth”.
The world’s most successful organisations, whether in manufacturing or in services, spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort developing people. Our governments need to do the same. MPs are among the most determined people you will meet – otherwise they would rarely have become MPs – but as a class they need much better preparation for ministerial office. In the British Civil Service we have one of the world’s best talent pools, but we don’t get the best out of them. Instead of incessant exhortation, we need to think harder about what makes people tick. Sir Ken Robinson, a teacher renowned worldwide in the development of creativity, wrote that “human resources, like natural resources, are often buried deep. In every organisation there are all sorts of untapped talents and abilities”. Don’t we need every hand on deck in order to get out of the mess we have landed ourselves in? It is always sensible to make the most of what you have. The answer is to look more closely at ourselves and our nature – and to act on what we find.
This is an abridged version of an essay by Richard Bacon MP, published today by the independent think tank Reform. The full version is available at www.reform.co.uk