The old anarchist slogan (above) always had a grain of truth in it – especially in Britain where our permanent civil service is very permanent indeed. As “Yes, Minister” so brilliantly satirised, Ministers come and go, but Sir Humphrey remains, immovable, unflappable and very much in charge – or at least a powerful force in shaping what governments actually do once in office.
Some of the more idiotic actions of the latter day Labour government have clearly been the result of “Departmental-capture” – I have heard Labour ministers coming out with some explanations of daft decisions that are pure Sir Humphrey. New Labour have actually paid rather little attention to reforming the machinery of government, compared to say the Thatcher and Major governments. Apart from the ill-fated attempts at ‘joined-up government’ and more strategic management of public spending, their main pre-occupation has been rearranging departmental deck-chairs in Whitehall (we’ve had more of those than in any period in recent history).
For an incoming government to have any decisive impact on the organisation, systems and culture of Whitehall it needs to have pretty good shared vision of what it wants to do before it gets there. Once in office, the ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service is very good at insulating Ministers from the real-world and each other, carry them around in a little bubble of ego-flattering concern and apparent luxury – which makes the Rolls Royce metaphor all too apt.
There is little sign that any of the three main parties have given any serious thought to reforming Whitehall, or its relationship with the other 90% of public services that it doesn’t directly run, to help cope with the crisis in public finances. That being the case, Whitehall will default to its usual patterns of turf-wars, ill-conceived policies that show little appreciation of how public services really work, and a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ to avoid some of the worst. Oh, and it’ll embrace ‘devolution’ or ‘decentralisation’ fervently – as one local authority chief executive out it (I paraphrase) ‘we’re finally about to get real decentralisation, just in time for it to be Town Halls rather than Whitehall making the cuts’.
The Tories, to be fair, have talked about being ‘the first post-bureaucratic government in history’. This is clearly in some way linked to the ‘Big Society’ (which has a grain of sense in it, but not much). But I have scoured their publications and speeches for some idea of what a ‘post-bureaucratic government’ actually is, and what it means for Whitehall, without success. So if it coming, they are keeping what it actually means a well-guarded secret. Or, more likely, they don’t actually know themselves. In which case, the chances of it happening once they are in office (if they do get in) are remote.
Whitehall has a great way of saying “Yes, Minister” and then setting up a inter-departmental working party to consider the terms of reference for a full-scale Review of Post-Bureaucratic Government, with several important work streams, leading to a Green Paper and consultation exercise on this important concept in, let’s say, 2014?