Digby Jones’ comments about the need to sack half of the British civil service raised a wry cheer in our house, where for once I found that I agreed with bits of what the noble Lord Jones had to say. Anyone who has worked in the public sector – I suspect particularly those who’ve worked in Whitehall departments – will recognise his description of the jobsworth civil servant who is shunted around from department to department when his line manager should really just offer a bottle of brandy and a pearl- handled revolver. And I’ve always thought that the misery that goes with being a junior Minister can’t possbly be worth the remote possibility that one day you could be elevated to the cabinet and have a limo with a driver and a regular slot on Question Time.
There is, of course, another side to this. Without naming names or specific departments (I want to keep working), I’ve seen more bullying behaviour, bad management, poor decision-making and futile work commissioned by Ministers than I could shake a stick at. When all decisions, no matter how small, have to be taken by Ministers the decision making process becomes choked and inefficient. When civil servants know that large chunks of the work they are being asked to prepare will never be acted upon, perhaps it’s no wonder that they aren’t as mustard-keen to complete it at breakneck speed as Digby might like (not that I’m suggesting that he was anything other than a beacon of good practice in his own dealings with the service).
The truly excellent people there are on both sides of the Minister/Official divide are battling daily against business processes which don’t work efficiently for either side – and more importantly don’t deliver best value for the public. Whose fault that is, and what’s to be done about it are two questions that Digby didn’t really address.
Taking pot-shots from the sidelines won’t really change anything (and can seriously damage your career as the Civil Serf found out last year). But open debate about the issue and floating some ideas for change can’t hurt. A number of public sector blogs wrestled with this at the time and there’s a lot of public sector blogging still going on. Perhaps new media can help let in some light on this one – and for those concerned about propriety here are the Civil Service guidelines on blogging. So join the debate – we have nothing to lose but our inner-Sir Humphrey!