Monday, 2 March 2020

Uncivil service?

It's easy to see how technocrats come over as elitist. Having learned the ins and outs of trade I'm in serious danger of going native. When you read hardliner Brexiters spouting nonsense along the lines that the civil service is a deep state marxist remainer cabal seeking to frustrate Brexit you have to wonder sometimes if you're on the right side.

The truth of the matter is that trade is very much the domain of boring functionaries doing what governments are supposed to do - collaborating with other countries to eliminate barriers to commerce and travel and making things work better than they do, often without recognition. Their cumulative efforts are what sustains the everyday things we take for granted. As a rule we only learn their names when something has failed.

As a rule, though, they are good at what they do. I have to admit I am a bit of an Ivan Rogers fan. He's a textbook civil servant. Knows his subject, painstakingly diplomatic (carefully wording his criticisms) and explains complex issues clearly. But of course, Rogers fell foul of the Tories by telling them things they do not want to know. He wasn't a true believer. The Tories select their advisers on the basis of their conformity to the groupthink rather than knowledge and experience.

But then I can also see the flip side of it. Bureaucratic institutions don't like change. Especially they don't like interlopers who don't understand what they do making changes without first earning their respect. They're invested in their respective projects where things are done a certain way for good reason and if there is to be change they have to see the value in it and why it's worth the disruption. If they don't, not only will they resist, there will be a great deal of resentment and hostility.

The problem there is that it's difficult for ministers who have a constructive relationship with the civil service not to go native too. If they follow the reasoning of their mandarins they can be persuaded to hold off any reforms. This is wonderfully illustrated in Yes Minister. Consequently there's the perception of the civil service running its own racket according to its own rules, manipulating ministers and standing in the way of change.

The Tories in tandem with the Telegraph have worked hard to massage this perception of an obstructive blob, painting the civil service as a corps of self-serving jobsworths. No doubt there are some fitting that description, but this is really a political vendetta waged on the civil service by a Tory party bent on wrecking it, believing nothing will get done otherwise.

At one time I held a great deal of sympathy for that point of view. A little creative destruction couldn't hurt. Some arms of government could be said to be wholly dysfunctional. The Home Office in particular. But then the Home Office has one of the toughest jobs bringing immigration under control.

It's easy for the likes of Farage to demand a "points based system" but any serious analysis shows that the problems come in many forms, be it holes in the asylum system or visa overstays. There is no silver bullet solution, and what is needed is a joined up strategy that starts at the local level across a range of activites. It's not as simple as simply adding more border officers at ports and airports. What you don't need is halfwit politicians barging in with simplistic demands and unrealistic targets who don't see why things are more complicated than appears to the layman.

Worse still are politicians who go around saying they'll get results and tell the mob that heads will roll. Tories just love a macho "no nonsense" politician who'll tell them what they want to hear. This to a large extent explains the popularity of Priti Patel. She doesn't strike me as the sort who grasps the nuances and complexities of policy making. She'll have been as welcome as a fart in a space suit in the Home Office.

The truth that nobody really wants to hear is that we can't really control immigration to the level people want and certainly not without an expensive and intrusive state and a lot of red tape for business. How then do small state Tories reconcile their ideology with their policy objectives? These are the sorts of conundrums a good civil servant will pose to their minister. You can have an immigration control system but it's not going to come cheap.

Very often ministers are told to go away and have a rethink about their objectives and priorities taking into account the limitations. The compromise often does not match the election promises. consequently we have politicians who always over promise and under deliver. Naturally they scapegoat the civil service.

Then as much as immigration and welfare issues have to be robust, meeting the public expectation that waste and fraud will be eliminated, these systems, have to be fair, which is a tall order since policy making is always done on the bases of averages and aggregates and cannot be tailored to the individual. People expect inanimate constructs to be compassionate. It'll never happen.

In reality the Home Office especially is always going to be a hotbed of conflict and contradiction and it's no surprise it's the bum job to get for a minister in that there are few opportunities to succeed. If you can get just one small thing working better than it did over a parliamentary term then that is something of an accomplishment. But there are no ticker tape parades for those successes.

Once you start to manage your expectation, taking into account the hidden layers of complexity and the various constraints, you can see how the civil service might take issue with know-nothing wreckers taking credit for their successes and blaming them for their failures, while manipulating public opinion against public officials doing their job in good faith.

This, ultimately is a dispute as old as the civil service itself. These are all familiar themes going back all of my lifetime and nothing is ever truly resolved. The generally rule is that things work better with minimal political intervention, avoiding the disruption of constant political attempts to reform, but without the political oversight, institutions can become a law unto themselves with an alien value system at odds with the demands of an unforgiving public. We have seen this in quangos broken away from Whitehall by Blair.

As to what the answer is, I don't know. I'm instantly mistrustful of anyone claiming to have the answers. In politics there is no such thing as a perfect system and like defining god, the closer you get to describing it, the further away you get. The reason this dispute has re-emerged, though, is largely because of Brexit. The civil service in many respects is not used to having political masters, rather they are functionaries implementing the EU's grand design where ministers have only limited scope to intervene.

On the whole it's a good thing that we are returning to political accountability, depriving politicians and civil servants alike of their excuses, but ministers might find they get further with honey rather than vinegar. I have no problems at all believing Priti Patel is "capricious, erratic, overly-emotional, unrealistic, and ignorant" and I'm not at all surprised the civil service has it in for her.

I understand the Tory tribal imperative to circle the wagons around Patel, but I don't see what actual talents she has. Toryboys are easily won over by way of her being a superficially attractive woman who makes right wing grunty noises and "triggers" the right people. Possibly modern politics has degenerated to the point where people don't actually care about effective government just so long as the politicians make the right grunty noises. We judge them on conformity to tribal narrative rather than results.

Ultimately this government is going to have to learn to work with rather than against the civil service. They can sent in their wreckers like Cummings and Patel, but all they'll succeed in doing is driving away expertise and making enemies in the process who will brief the media. If the Johnson administration has anything to learn, it is that the civil service can be a valuable partner, but a vindictive enemy. Like it or not, they have to learn to live with each other. I suspect that the (not so) civil service will outlast Johnson.

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