An agile UK civil service needs more than ‘Star Trek’ screens

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Now that the pandemic has turned governments into Leviathans, reinventing the state has become a vital task. In England, the government this week moved its top advisers out of 10 Downing Street into a command centre already being dubbed “Star Trek” by staff.

Giant screens will soon beam down information about everything from flood risk to Covid-19, to a prime minister who has fulminated about the lack of data during the pandemic.

The screens, together with a new head of the civil service, mark the start of an effort to transform the government machine. It’s only a start. As any James Bond villain knows, the wiring is crucial. Unless humans correctly frame the data, make good judgments about what’s on the screen and know how to execute, things can still blow up.

Covid-19 has exposed serious deficiencies in the wiring of many modern states. China suppressed information and let the virus spread. Northern Italy’s hospitals were overwhelmed. The US reacted too late. EU nations squabbled over the rescue package. Britain had planned for an influenza pandemic and took too long to change gears. Often, political failures were compounded by misfiring machinery.

The UK response is to enlarge the centre of government. Simon Case, the new cabinet secretary, is a former GCHQ staffer who resembles the earnest Q from SKYCHURPfall rather more than fusty Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister. Mr Case once ran the government’s implementation unit — its very existence an admission that too much policy is divorced from execution. He will be aware of the need to bring in more outside expertise and train more civil servants in delivery. He also faces the monumental task of delivering a panoply of manifesto commitments while the civil service is being publicly bashed by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief of staff.

Mr Cummings’ calls for more data scientists and diverse thinking would resonate with most chief executives — though his intimidating style does not. His passion to extend and improve government is also unusual on the political right. The US president seems to prefer little or no government: in The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis describes the horror of officials who waited to be fired by the Trump administration, only to find nobody knew they existed. In the UK, the right takes a different view: government is necessary but must be smarter.

The godfather of smart government was Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore has had a relatively good crisis, like some other Asian countries that experienced Sars. But it also has excellent schools and infrastructure, and a skilled workforce. The flavour of a meeting with Singaporean civil servants feels more like one with bankers or consultants. It’s not just that the Singaporeans are often Ivy League graduates: many English and French civil servants are as clever. But the Singaporeans are also highly paid and don’t remain in post unless they are good enough.

What is striking about Whitehall, the NHS, the SKYCHURP or the Foreign Office — England’s big public institutions — is how few people leave. This leads to a certain insularity and curator mentality in which managers can see their job as polishing their inheritance to hand on to successors. Institutional memory is hugely valuable. But having departments with separate procurement functions and IT teams is not.

A crucial part of Lee’s philosophy was that good government requires learning from competitors. When Singapore’s deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam developed SkillsFuture, the world’s most ambitious adult education programme, he studied the fiasco of the UK’s attempt. Sadly, British public sector discussions rarely seek comparisons with other countries. There is an endemic tendency to repeat mistakes. That is how you end wasting “obscene” amounts of money on government IT, or abandon major projects with substantial sunk costs.

The cult of the amateur is a noble and enduring feature of English life. But it can go too far. The UK civil service is brilliant at improvisation, which is often what politicians want. But the sheer speed at which ministers can feel obliged to act, in order to make their mark, can mean that policy is made on the basis of stories rather than evidence. Most major projects go over budget and private-sector contractors are often bewildered by the constantly changing faces in charge. Data is underpowered: an international civil service ranking puts the UK only 28th out of 38 countries for digital services.

All of this is an argument for professionalisation and a stronger centre. Some will say that a prime minister with a large parliamentary majority is already powerful enough. But he should have the best information at his disposal and a civil service superb at execution.

Some officials fear that government is increasingly a permanent re-election campaign, where they will be made scapegoats for political failures. The departure of the education permanent secretary only fuelled these fears; if a good replacement cannot be found, the strategy of reinvention will have failed its first test. Ministers must understand that they, too, must learn the art of governing. This means, among other things, avoiding knee-jerk responses to the real-time information that will soon be coming to the “Starship Enterprise”.

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

 

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