Reform of the state machine must be our Number One priority

In the wake of the Queen’s speech, I want to argue for the biggest social justice reform of all. Britain has a civil service machine set up for a small 19th century administrative state, not tackling 21st century problems. We have a deficit to eliminate and major social problems to solve. The only way we can do both is through reforming Government to be much more efficient.

Incentives for empire-building are rife in Government

This is not simply to attack the civil service. In two and a half years in Number Ten and the same amount of time in the Department of Health I met civil servants who were outstanding, some who were good, and some that Government (and the country) would be better off if they were removed tomorrow. The very good civil servants are often frustrated by those who are inadequate.

Part of the problem is within departments, the incentives for any official are to expand and grow their empires – more money and more staff bump your salary and power in the department. Because departments are set up as administrative machines, a default assumption is that they exist to administer budgets and regulation, not to solve problems. The net result is constant pressure to expand budgets and rules – while neglecting underlying problems.

Conservatives – know your limits!

Conservatives constantly overestimate their capacity to control the empires they create. They see systems that don’t work and think a new body that they control will magically fix issues. A case in point is education. New quangos have not solved the issues people hoped. Instead they have tended to create bodies that try to micromanage and expand their own power base. These bodies, being more technocratic and more remote from Ministers, tend even more than the core civil service to attract those with typical centre-left views and believers in yet more Government.

This issue of overestimating capacity also goes for the civil service. The Universal Credit is a great policy, but implementation has been very difficult – because the civil service, while generally pushing for an increase in its own power, is poor at delivery. Government often neglects current policy implementation, whilst preparing elaborate future blueprints to solve problems by increasing its own powers and spending.

The Spin Machine

Given all this, sometimes Government retreats into spin. The most obvious form is just managing headlines. Sometimes it can go deeper – for instance, picking a serious issue and running with it until it becomes ‘old news’. So the current focus on mental health is a genuine response to a real problem. But less than ten years ago the serious issue of the time was public health. Both Labour and Conservatives toyed with creating a Department for Public Health. Now the public health budget, two per cent of the total NHS budget, is being steadily cut, while mental health will get increases in spending.

Another major problem is when departments blunder into other areas because it is easier than fixing their own issues. In housing and planning DCLG often suffered from poorly thought through ideas from other departments pushed to gain a good headline in trade press, or stakeholder applause.

The instinctive biases of the civil service

While defending officials as individuals, it is true that there is a reflex bias toward more government. One of the best officials I ever met once told me, about  a particular spending item, that since there was no evidence that it was not effective they had to keep supporting it. The fact that it had to be paid by the taxpayer had long ago been forgotten – it was just “departmental money”.

Key civil servants tend to hold the typical views of upper middle class Londoners on social issues. This can make driving policies that go against this (i.e:  travellers’ rights on issues like illegal pitches) exhausting, since officials’ reflex assumptions oppose conservative ones. Finally, while civil servants tend to see expansion of Government power as practical, they see cutting it as political. If you want to solve an issue spend more – if you do not care spend less – a simple and utterly wrong analysis.

Cutting government requires reforming it

The proposals below merely start to try to work against the biases currently embedded.

1. Create a bias against spending money or increasing regulation.

At the end of each officials’ time in office, they must be given a mark to indicate increased spending and regulation, reduced spending and regulation, or Ministerial waiver (where they increased budgets and regulation, but Ministers were happy to do so). This should be one of the major elements in promotion, in order to rewire incentives. Instead officials would have to start trying to find other ways to solve problems and tackling root causes of issues.

2. All civil servants at Director General level should be directly appointed by Ministers and Number 10. Bad officials should be removed.

This in practice means that half a dozen officials per department will be appointed in this way. This move will allow promotion of good officials, but will also encourage removal of bad officials at key posts below that – because senior staff that protect bad officials will end up being removed. This would give greater control while not overly politicising the vast majority of civil service appointments.

3. A clearer strategic purpose – including larger Ministerial offices and clearer accountability

Ministerial offices should be larger – including more policy (not communication) advisers where necessary. Civil servants above a certain level should be accessible for five years to explain past policies in order to increase accountability and be held to account for past decisions. Each policy area should also be more clearly identified as one department’s responsibility. If departments want to interfere in areas where another department’s writ runs, they need to ask Number 10 to agree to this (the current ‘write-round’ process allows Ministers to randomly block other departments’ proposals). This would put pressure on departments to only use this as a last resort.

The current machinery of Government struggles to solve issues like ongoing poverty, or social care difficulties, or sluggish productivity growth, and does so at great cost to the taxpayer. We need to be as passionate about what might seem a dry task of reforming the machinery of Government as we are on solving any single social justice issue.