Reflections on Gordon Brown’s speech to the Institute for Government

Andreas Whittam Smith
14 December 2009

Gordon Brown gave a short and partisan history of public service delivery in his recent speech at the Institute for Government. The Institute, by the way, was set up last year with the backing of Lord Sainsbury to improve the process of government. The Prime Minister divided his account into three eras.

There was before 1997, a period that ended when New Labour came to power. This generation ‘ensured everyone could have access to essential services that up until then had been provided patchily and inadequately.’ But the record was marred, said Mr. Brown, by skimping on investment and by complacency. Then comes the twelve years in which New Labour has been in government. Now, according to the Prime Minister, a new chapter is beginning.

Mr. Brown passed quickly over New Labour’s turn in the driving seat saying only that ‘we transformed investment in our public services. What were once seen as ambitious goals are increasingly seen as the norm.’ There was not an ounce of reflection by the Prime Minister on government’s increasing inability to deliver what it sets out to do. Yet almost every day, cases of severe malfunction come to light.

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I select at random from examples that have been reported in the past week or so. On 8 December the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons had another look at the immigration services, an area of activity that a former Labour Home Secretary, John Reid, had memorably described as ‘not fit for purpose.’ However the Committee found that since Mr. Reid’s comments another 40,000 immigration files had gone missing where it was not known whether the applicant had left the country or remained nor, if the latter, whether he or she had been granted leave to remain or was here illegally.

Then earlier this month a survey of health care published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had a depressing analysis of cancer survival in this country. In Britain, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer had a 78.5 per cent likelihood of being alive five years later. But in France, the figure was 82.6 per cent, in Sweden 86.1 percent and in the U.S., 90.5 per cent. The situation is even worse for those with bowel cancer. In these cases, Britain was the second worst country of the 30 member states. One reason is a lack of scanners. In Britain there are 8.2 scanners per million people, much lower than the OECD average of 11. So much for ‘skimping on investment’ being a weakness that disappeared in 1997.

Finally I take a very different sort of example because with one word it gets to the heart of what is wrong. Let us listen in on the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry. Lt-General Sir Frederick Viggers, who led British forces in Iraq in 2003, said that lessons had not been learnt from the mistakes made during that campaign. Problems in the planning of military action, such as that currently being carried out in Afghanistan, persisted because those at the top of Government did not have the necessary expertise. "We have not really progressed at the strategic level," Sir Frederick said. "I am not talking about the soldiers and commanders and civilians... who did a great job. It's the intellectual horse power that drives these things [which] needs better co-ordination." He added: "We are putting amateurs into really important positions and people are getting killed as a result of some of these decisions."

That is the word: “amateur”. Ministers are professional politicians but amateur governors. They are interested in the delivery of public services certainly, even passionately concerned, but they simply don’t know how to govern for nothing in their careers has prepared them. Amateurs. Don’t forget Jacqui Smith’s frank reflections on her ministerial career after stepping down as Home Secretary. She was asked if she worried that she was not up to the job: “Well, every single time that I was appointed to a ministerial job I thought that,” she replied. As to the Home Office, she confessed that she had “never run a major organisation” before accepting the task in 2007. “I hope I did a good job but if I did, it was more by luck than by any kind of development of those skills,” she added. She went on to describe her first weekend as Home Secretary, in July 2007, when she had to respond to the terror attacks in central London and Glasgow airport. “I'm not sure I understood, I’m ashamed to say, when I first heard it, quite how serious it was.” “When somebody rings you up and they say ‘a car has been found in Haymarket and it seems like it might have been set up to explode’, your first reaction is ‘oh, that’s interesting’. You then think ‘well, now I’m Home Secretary, so I have responsibility for that’.”

This unreadiness of politicians when appointed to ministerial posts has been the case in the British system of government as far back as one cares to look. So one way of writing the story of Britain’s changing constitutional arrangements since, say, 1945, is to plot the different attempts to make good the deficiency. My short history of public service delivery starts in the 1960s for until then we had considered our constitutional arrangements the finest in the world. Certainly the unwritten constitution had solved the problem described above. For the civil service, also thought to be the best, carried ministers and expected to do so. However in the late 1960s, ministers began to criticize their officials for their supposed complacency, old-fashioned education, narrow backgrounds and ignorance of a rapidly changing society.

Since then ministers have tried various measures to shake themselves free of the ‘companionable embrace’ as the relationship was called. In came special advisers from the late 1960s onwards even though their introduction led to divided lines of responsibility within departments. At the same time numerous quangos began to be created to push responsibility away from the centre despite the lack of democratic accountability of the new bodies. This was followed by the excessive use of consultants. Sensitive management was replaced by the imposition of targets on every conceivable aspect of service delivery. But the numbers are regularly ‘gamed’. And they make executives risk averse – or even suicidal. On 8 December an inquiry in Scotland heard that bureaucracy had overwhelmed a head teacher who had killed herself after school inspectors criticised her leadership. There have been a few similar cases.

So what comes next? Here are the Prime Minister’s answers:

  1. “Let local areas set priorities and guide resources”
  2. “We will ensure that people can get access to the information they need to engage in dialogue with public service professionals; and in doing so reduce bureaucratic burdens.”
  3. “Whitehall has to let go - and empower staff and the public to shape provision in meeting local needs and priorities”.

All well and good. But will this new experiment in delivering public services sharpen up the work of the immigration service, bring more scanners into the NHS and provide British troops in peril overseas with the sort of professional political leadership they need. I don’t think so.

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