Bernard Jenkin: Case’s appointment could mark a fresh start – after deteriorating confidence between Ministers and officials

4 Sep

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee. He is MP for Harwich and North Essex.

The appointment of Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service presents a new opportunity to make a fresh start on the relationship between the Government and the civil servants. It follows a period of deteriorating confidence and increasing disillusion between the Government and its officials.

Ministers must want to end the paralysing effects of regular disputes with the civil servants upon whom they depend for policy and advice and for the delivery of their decisions. Ministers need to wake up to the fact that, on any realistic time horizon, this is the only civil service there is.  There is no instant alternative.  By all means complain about it (best in private), but nurture it too.  That means improving Whitehall leadership and addressing Whitehall culture.  This appointment should jolt the coming generation of Whitehall leaders out of any remaining complacency that there must be change.  But what kind of change?

Michael Gove’s Ditchley lecture about Whitehall highlighted at least 18 criticisms, most of them familiar and about which the civil service has been too complacent for too long.  Michael also proposed six main solutions: relocating Government decision-making out of London: recruiting policymakers from “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”; a “more thoughtful approach to devolution”; promoting officials in-role, to reduce churn and to retain talent; and re-establishing a “properly-resourced campus for training those in Government”.

Sadly, that last and vital proposal has already been dropped, because the Treasury knew nothing of this announcement before it was made.  So back we go to just on-line learning and teaching by contractors. Overall, the speech did not give a clear vision of what sort of institution we want it to be.

It is curious that a speech addressing organisational dysfunction should place so little emphasis on the need for the civil service to develop its own stronger leadership.  The new National Leadership Centre has been established to develop better leaders across the public sector, and should be supported by ministers.

Like any other organisation, the Civil Service depends above all on capable leaders.  Equip every official with subject knowledge, expertise and technical skills, fix the structure, stop the churn, and Whitehall will still show many of the Ditchley list of failings unless it develops better leaders.  And leadership is not just an accident of personality.  A great concert pianist may be born with exceptional gifts, but won’t succeed without copious instruction, practice, reviewing and learning.  Capable leaders are the same.

A telling piece of evidence to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee inquiry on public procurement came from Lord Levene.  He reformed defence procurement in the 1980s, and came back to advise the Cameron administration in 2010.  He observed how in 1985 he found that 1970s reforms had been “replaced by the bureaucracy which took charge again, and the system soon reverted to type”; and also that when he returned in 2010, again he found “a situation where we were effectively back at the point at which I found myself in the spring of 1985.”

In both cases, temporary radical and apparently successful leadership had failed to leave any permanent effect.  What should be the lesson of this?  Yes, importing fresh leadership from outside can be very positive, but permanent transformation of capability and culture requires much more than just temporarily imposing a new person to provide better direction.

Nor did the Ditchley speech present any ideas that would address weaknesses in Whitehall culture, even though it complained about it being “risk-averse”.  With all the blame handed out by ministers these days, why are we surprised about that?  We must learn from Francis Maude’s experience of reforming Whitehall.  He achieved some significant and lasting organisational changes. He would however be the first to agree that he was disappointed by the very limited impact on Whitehall culture.

He later said that he should have addressed that first, and not as an afterthought.  Instead, he had laid emphasis on trying to gain political control over Permanent Secretary appointments and ministers’ private offices. He got some changes, but the culture remained unchanged.

The lessons of his period are twofold.  First, so much more can be achieved in collaboration with Whitehall.  Second, to attempt to force structural change without addressing culture is the slowest and least effective means of achieving meaningful change.  The fruits from his fighting against civil servants are hard to find.  Reform cannot be forced on such a large and living institution.

The appointment of Simon Case as Head of the Civil Service is an opportunity for ministers and officials to agree how to address leadership and culture in Whitehall.  It is also a signal that the civil service must wake up to its own need to reform its beliefs, attitudes and behaviours (which is what we mean by ‘culture’).  Ministers and officials need to agree about which attitudes and behaviours they want to strengthen, and which need to be rooted out.  This should be at the core of leadership development.

These choices need to be based upon a clear expression of purpose and values, by which leaders must be expected to lead by their example.  That includes ministers.  Experience from all organisations show that lasting change cannot be achieved without unity and a clear example from the top.  A few enthusiasts will not be enough to defeat institutional inertia.  The resisters (and there are always some) have to be confronted and if necessary, forced out, but the resisters will win if everyone senses hesitancy or division at the top.  A few extra weirdos and misfits who can do Monte Carlo Method or Bayesian statistics may be nice to have, but they will not alter the culture of Whitehall one jot.

Securing the Majority? 4) Getting more Conservatives appointed to public bodies

3 Sep

After the 2019 election, we suggested five ways that Boris Johnson could help to secure the Party’s electoral position as part of our Majority series. This was the fourth. Eight months on, how are they doing?

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Securing The Majority? 4) Getting more Conservatives appointed to public bodies

The thorny question of public appointments is one in which the Tories have only shown intermittent interest over the past ten years.

David Cameron, whose freedom of manoeuvre was restricted by the Coalition, did not really start to take action until late in the day, before the issue was neglected again under Theresa May’s leadership.

Yet with a huge range of responsibilities vested in New Labour’s ‘quangocracy’, the question of ensuring proper representation for Conservatives is not just about fairness – it has real implications for delivering and bedding in the broader Government agenda.

As Paul noted in his original piece, there seems to be no appetite for a full-on fight to wrest control of senior appointments away from the Civil Service (alas). Instead, as we reported in March, the plan appears to be a hard push to increase what Michael Gove called “regional diversity, and diversity of thought”. Alex Hickman, the Prime Minister’s business adviser, is now the spad responsible for appointments.

Ministers are apparently more across this issue too, compared to previous administrations. Appointments are now recognised as an important legacy issue, as many of the appointees will considerably outlast the Secretary of State who appointed them or, indeed, the Government.

Work is also underway on the political side to create more CCHQ support for would-be appointees, with the goal of building a ‘talent pool’ and helping to steer suitable candidates towards particular appointments as they emerge, as well as to be a bit more strategic about when appointments are made (some think one reason Toby Young was forced out of the Office for Students was because the story broke at a quiet point in the news cycle).

It will take time to tell if this process is bearing fruit. One indicator will be how frequently the Government is accused of ‘cronyism’, as it was when Patrick McLoughlin and Nick de Bois landed jobs at Visit Britain and Visit England.

Daniel Hannan: Politicians can’t win. When they don’t give us what we want, we protest. And when they then do, we carry on.

19 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The exam fiasco is a neat demonstration of what is wrong with our administrative state, our media culture and, frankly, our own double standards.

A bad thing happens. We demand, in an angry but unfocused way, that Something Be Done – in this instance, that schools be closed. When confronted with the consequence of our own demand – i.e: that there is no way to be fair to exam candidates other than to let them sit the papers – we howl with protest.

We don’t blame ourselves, obviously. Nor do we blame those who made it impossible for schools to reopen: teachers’ unions, hostile councils and, indeed, reluctant parents. Nor yet do we blame the people who actually drew up and applied the grading system. No, we focus all our anger on the politicians – the same politicians whom we insisted should “step back and trust the professionals”, should “let teachers get on”, should “stop using our kids as a political football”.

It’s the same story every time. Voters demand that technical agencies be free from political interference, but then rage at ministers when those agencies screw things up. Thus, in an inversion of Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the press barons, ministers have responsibility without power.

There is, for example, an unwritten media rule that, whenever failures in procurement by Public Health England or the NHS are reported, these bodies must always be called “the Government”. The verbal trick allows us to draw a distinction between public sector officials (who are presented as undervalued heroes) and politicians (who are vaguely assumed to be malevolent as well as incompetent).

No one suggests that ministers were directly involved in the procurement failures, any more than that that Gavin Williamson personally drew up the grading algorithm (which drew on input from hundreds of interested parties, including the teaching unions, who were perfectly happy with it). No one needs to point to anything specific, because politicians enjoy the automatic disbenefit of the doubt.

It has long been a convention in this country that ministers carry the can – a good and necessary one. The problem is when ministers have had nothing to do with the can until it is thrust into their hands.

Let’s go back to those grades. Most of us will have come across cases of individual injustice. A young friend of mine, who was top of her year, had had 15 A*s at GCSE and was predicted 4 A*s at A-level, knew as soon as she learned how the algorithm had been drawn up that she was likely to be penalised (one of her predicted A*s was in further maths, so she understands how these things work).

Her school – not an underperforming inner city comprehensive, but a successful private girls school – had had two dud years in two of her subjects, and she knew that no computer would award her the grade that she would have achieved in the exam itself. Sure enough, the algorithm did its work and she missed her university offer.

People in her situation were rightly furious. A computer model had deleteriously altered the course of their lives. Those on the other side – of whom there must have been a great many, since results overall rose this year – naturally attributed their good fortune to themselves rather than to the system. That is how these things work.

When ministers stepped in to redress the grievances of the losers, they created new losers. They reversed years of work against grade inflation and gave many students artificially high marks. The losers thus include those who took their exams last year or will take them next year, those who took them this year and would have done well without the boost, and, not least, universities which now face an administrative nightmare.

As Phil Taylor reminded us on this site yesterday, the algorithm had in fact worked in most cases: “Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend”.

My point is not that the U-turn was wrong. My point is that all our options were bad once we had made the calamitous decision to close schools – despite the fact that there has still not been a single identified case of anyone catching Covid-19 from a child anywhere in the world. The time to complain was then, not now.

I know I have banged on a great deal about the hopelessness of our quango state, but the past six months have made my case for me. It’s not just the obvious incompetence of PHE and NHS administrators. It’s every unelected agency, from an immigration service unable to deport illegal migrants to our super-woke police constabularies.

In a powerful article for The Atlantic, Tom McTague argues that “Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus.” His article, which sets out in pitiless detail our various cock-ups, has had a huge impact, reminiscent of the gloom provoked by the valedictory despatch of our Paris ambassador, Sir Nicholas Henderson, in March 1979, which unflinchingly set out the mess that Britain was then in.

In fact, though Sir Nicholas didn’t know it, Britain was on the cusp of a national revival. Its administrative state was failing, but the country as a whole was not. In the 1980s, free to pursue their ambitions, the British outperformed every European economy and resumed their place at the world’s top tables.

Now, as then, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that the failure of our bureaucracies denotes a general national failure. Going into the Covid-19 crisis, we were a prosperous and successful country, leading the world in biotech and artificial intelligence, higher education and the audiovisual sector, legal and financial services. We face a specific and remediable problem, not a general decline.

The good news is that, even before the pandemic hit, this Government was determined to tackle the quangocracy. Back in January, that might have seemed a slightly recherché and eccentric priority. Not any more.

Politicians should indeed carry the can – over the electoral cycle. Ministers must by now be aware of how rusted and useless the machinery of state has become. They have four years to fix it.

Howard Flight: Parkinson’s Law revisited

3 Aug

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

An old friend of mine sent me a very interesting article on Parkinson’s Law Today. The theoretical law of the 1950s has changed to a mathematical equation describing the rate at which bureaucracies expand over time. Two different case studies of our times are financial regulators and the NHS. The numbers employed in both territories continue to grow way beyond any practical justification.

There are some fascinating facts supporting the arguments. At a time when the British Empire was in decline, the Colonial Office had its greatest number of staff who were folded into the Foreign Office, due to a lack of colonies to administer! Such contrarian growth is explained by two key factors – officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and officials make work for each other. The number of people employed in a bureaucracy tends to rise by between five and seven per cent a year. That was irrespective of any variation in the amount of work – if any – to be done.

Parkinson also proposed a rule about the efficiency of Administrative Council. He defined a coefficient of inefficiency with the number of members as the main determining variable. This is an attempt to define the size at which a committee or other decision-making Body will become wholly inefficient, if not useless. In Parkinson’s Law, “The Pursuit of Progress”, a chapter is devoted to the basic question of what Parkinson called Comitology – how committees, government candidates, and other such Bodies are created and eventually grow irrelevant, if they are not initially designated as such. Interestingly the world Comitology has recently been invented independently by the EU for a different non-humorous meaning. Empirical evidence is extracted from historical and contemporary government candidates. Most frequently the minimal size of a States’ most powerful and prestigious Body is five members.

From English history, Parkinson notes a number of bodys that lost power as they grew.

The First Cabinet was the Council of the Crown, now the House of Lords which grew from a handful to 29, and then to 50 by 1600 by which time it had lost most of its power. A new Body in 1257 numbering fewer than 10; it grew to 172 members and ceased to meet. The third incarnation was the Privy Council, initially numbering less than 10 members but rising to 47 in 1679. In 1715 the Privy Council lost power to the Cabinet Council with eight members, rising to 20 by 1725. Around 1740 the Cabinet Council was superseded by an inner group called the Cabinet, initially with five members. In the 1950s the Cabinet was still the official governing Body. From 1939 until the 1950’s there was an effort to save the Cabinet as an institution. Membership had been fluctuating from a high of 23 down to 18 in 1954.

Parkinson proposed a detailed mathematical expression for the coefficient of inefficiency, featuring many possible influences. In 2008 an attempt was made to verify empirically the proposed model. Parkinson thought that membership exceeding around 20 makes a committee manifestly inefficient. Less certain is the optimal number of members which is somewhere between three and 20. For a group of 20, individual discussions may dilute the power of the leader. Common sense suggests eight may be the optimum number, but this is not supported by observations. No contemporary Government in Parkinson’s data set had eight members and only the unfortunate Charles 1st had a committee of State of that size.

This territory should merit regular measurement, reviews, and analysis. It is painfully clear to citizens that when organisations become too big, they also become inefficient and vulnerable.

Increases in NHS staff have accounted for nearly all the increase in public sector jobs – numbers now stand at 1.75 million, 32 per cent of all public sector jobs and five per cent of all jobs in the UK. It is surely self-evident to conclude that a monolithic approach to providing and managing healthcare makes no sense and invites bad experience and outturn. Logically the unit size should be broken down to leadership teams of under 20 with sufficient staff numbers to operate the range of services provided by each particular hospital. Staff could be lent to and borrowed by particular hospitals as and when required. Accountability should probably be to the relevant local authority, Cabinet or constituency MPs.

Civil Service jobs hit a record low in 2016 but have been increasing again recently. Currently, they stand at 460,000. There are nearly four times as many people working in the NHS as there are in the Civil Service.

This is the territory which the Chancellor needs to research and examine in detail. It is probable that Civil Service numbers could be reduced by 60,000 to 400,000 with anybody scarcely noticing. This should save of the order £500 million a year. The NHS is a more difficult proposition as a result of the support it has achieved for dealing honourably with COVID-19 patients. My view is that restructuring into manageable sized units is the key to better and greater efficiency and that in time it too could effect cost savings of £50m pa.

Profile: York – and its potential role as Parliament’s new home, a Johnson joke which could become serious

22 Jul

There are few better ways to infuriate the House of Lords than to propose that it should move to York.

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, on Sunday sent an email to his fellow peers, headed “The Ivory Coast Option”, which breathes a spirit of extreme exasperation while arguing against separating the Lords from the Commons:

“It is worth reflecting on this: there are 79 nations with bicameral legislatures (parliaments with two chambers, typically a lower house and a senate). In all but one of these the chambers are located in the same city, often adjoining. The one exception is the Côte d’Ivoire whose lower house, the National Assembly, is located in Abidjan, while its recently established upper house, the Senate, is located in Yamoussoukro, some 235 km away. No disrespect to the Ivory Coast, but it is not immediately clear why the UK should follow their lead.”

It was odd to find Lord Fowler fulminating against the suggestion that the Lords should be sundered from the Commons, for the Prime Minister has now ventured to propose that both Houses should move to York during the renovation of the Palace of Westminster, which is expected to begin in 2025.

The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told Times Radio earlier this week that as a Lancashire man, any move to York would “stick in my throat”. He considers his own constituency, Chorley, preferable, and says there could be “no better place than Lancaster Castle”, which is sitting empty and “belongs to the Queen”.

But in any case, Hoyle went on,

“I don’t believe the House of Commons is leaving London. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think, you know, Parliament is rooted within London, it’s our capital city. As much as I can dream about moving north, it isn’t going to happen … it wouldn’t be good for the Commons.”

What is going on here? When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was asked last Thursday about their lordships going to York, he replied:

“It occurs to me that when Royal Ascot moved to York their lordships found it great fun to go up to York. So if they could do it for pleasure, I’m sure they might have a jolly time going there for business.”

Peers do not generally find this funny. Lord Singh of Wimbledon – better known to Radio 4 listeners as Indarjit Singh – has asserted that “York is seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public”.

Lord Young of Cookham, known as Sir George Young during his long service as MP and minister, has complained that the Government “keeps this hare running”, and wonders who authorised it, and how much public money has been spent.

But Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of the Lancaster and often in the forefront of reform, has indicated his strong support for the idea of taking Parliament, and large parts of the Civil Service, out of London: “I think it is vitally important that decision-makers are close to people.”

Will Parliament move, at least temporarily, to York? Lord Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93, suggested yesterday afternoon to ConHome:

“Well I think it may be a tease or a joke. But a tease or a joke can be a clever way of introducing a very awkward subject. Humour is Boris’s way of communicating and the more awkward the subject the more humorous.

“There’s a serious intention there disguised as a joke. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to be spending a lot of time on this at a time of economic crisis.”

In Yorkshire, the idea of moving Parliament north is greeted as a long overdue corrective to southern ways of thinking. In January, when the idea of taking the Lords there was first floated, York Council offered to help with the move.

As a woman long resident in Yorkshire put it yesterday to ConHome, “Lots of parliamentarians are too hefted to the South”  – hefted being a term used of sheep who are taught to graze a piece of unfenced fell, and in succeeding generations stay there without being told. She went on:

“A meeting of North and South can only be for the good. Some of the southern values might be put to the test. Northerners tell it as they see it.

“People here were so pro-Boris at the election. I hope he realises that. They like his very direct style. You could never get an answer out of Corbyn. Northerners want to know what you think.

“They’re not out for themselves the way people are down South. They do feel there’s an element of being second-class citizens.”

Many Labour voters who in the North of England voted Conservative for the first time last December felt that for generations they had been treated by Westminster and Whitehall as second-class citizens, for whom second-class services were good enough.

But the need for “levelling up”, as ministers now describe it, is by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. Here is Ranulf Higden, a monk in Chester, writing in the 14th century:

“All the language of the men of Northumberland, and especially of Yorkshire, soundeth so that the men of the South may scarcely understand the language of them, which thing may be caused by the proximity of their language to that spoken by barbarians, and also by the great distance of the kings of England since those kings mostly frequent the South and only enter the North when accompanied by a large number of their retainers. There is also another cause, which is that the South is more abundant in fertility than the North, has more people, and more convenient harbours.”

When one arrives at York, and walks from the station to the Minster, this disparaging tone becomes impossible to sustain. It is a wonderful city, containing within its medieval walls, the most complete in England, a stupendous concentration of wonderful buildings.

The city, founded as Eboracum by the Romans in 71 AD, was visited by three emperors and has served as capital of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior, of the kingdom of Northumbria, and latterly of the northern province of the Church of England.

York has been called, as Robert Tombs reminds us in The English and Their History (2014), the natural capital of Britain.

Like most Roman cities, it benefits from admirable transport links, its roads and river supplemented in 1839 by the coming of the railways, for which it became a major centre.

William the Conqueror had crushed, with his customary brutality, the uprising of 1069, in which the two castles erected by the Normans at York on either side of the River Ouse were taken and the garrison massacred, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria “cutting off their heads one by one”.

William’s revenge, the Harrying of the North, entailed laying waste a great tract of country northwards from York: pacification by starvation.

In later centuries, pacification by the recognition of York’s importance was from time to time attempted. As a contributor to The History of Parliament points out,

“Between 1301 and 1335 the Lords and Commons met no fewer than eleven times at York, three times each at Lincoln and Northampton, and twice at Nottingham, while individual Parliaments were held at Carlisle, Oseney, Salisbury, Stamford, Winchester, and Windsor. Other venues were periodically considered, but abandoned: in the autumn of 1322 Parliament was summoned to meet at Ripon, but subsequently moved to York, while parliaments planned to be held at York in 1310, and Lincoln in 1312 were moved to Westminster before they could assemble.”

In 1472 the Council of the North was established in the capable and efficient hands of the future Richard III. The Council’s headquarters was King’s Manor, York, which looks rather small for the Lords but could do if the House is shrunk.

Henry VIII said  there would be a Parliament in York in 1536 to appease Catholic rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, but then decided to kill the rebels instead.

According to a recent report in The Times, York is “being lined up by Downing Street as a possible second centre of government”:

“It’s not just the House of Lords. Senior civil servants who are close to decision-making are already looking at Rightmove to see what they can buy for the cost of a terraced house in East Dulwich. And they like it. They are looking at substantial Edwardian villas in Harrogate.”

They will find themselves competing, since Leeds United’s promotion, with Premier League footballers.

Perhaps all this will come to nothing, and York will not have to cope with an influx of politicians. But a site has been found next to the railway station where a temporary Parliament building could be erected, in time for opening in 2025 when the Palace of Westminster closes for repairs.

Johnson has warned that this should be done with “no gold plating”, but how he would love the drama and symbolism of such a move.

And one suspects that many Labour voters in the North of England might start to believe they are no longer being treated as second-class citizens.

What the abolition of DfID tells us about the war on Civil Service generalists

18 Jul

Although overtaken by the Covid-19 crisis, this Government remains committed to the Herculean (perhaps Sisyphean) task of reforming the Civil Service.

Michael Gove has spoken about the need to tackle ‘group think’, and Dominic Cummings is an avowed enthusiast for cracking down on Whitehall’s reliance on generalists and bringing in outsiders to shake things up.

The practice of shuffling civil servants around Whitehall on a regular basis, which fuels the generalist culture, not only makes it very difficult for them to develop expertise in a given area, but it can also make it hard to hold individuals accountable for failure, and over time this inevitably has an effect on the efficacy of the Civil Service.

In Part V of his excellent essay ‘The Gervais Principle‘, an analysis of organisations through the lens of The Office, Venkatesh Rao describes how individuals in complex organisations conspire to offload blame onto the organisation itself, which instead accrues inside it as a sort of ‘dark matter’.

He then describes the effect this has on the organisation over time, which cumulate in “the organization itself gradually turning into an incomprehensible, byzantine and increasingly error-prone maze, as it pretends to evolve and self-correct”. Critics of the Civil Service probably wouldn’t dissent from that assessment.

Worse, the Civil Service lacks the correction mechanism Rao perceives in modern capitalism: a relatively short institutional life-cycle which allows for regular resets through mergers and take-overs. It thus ends up in the middle-management mire foreseen by William H Whyte in his seminal The Organisation Man, the consequences of which for the end-user were illuminatingly described by George Bathurst in his article yesterday.

But the war on generalists could have perils of its own. Whilst circulating civil servants around Whitehall may contribute to the creation of a broad ‘Civil Service culture’, the alternative could be the emergence of much more powerful departmental cultures.

A department populated by long-serving specialists risks becoming deeply committed to an institutional outlook, one bolstered by the very expertise Cummings et al is out to attract and the ideological preoccupations which attract able people to a career in a single sector. It may thus lack the flexibility to adapt to changes of course under different governments.

(It’s telling that the Department for International Development, which the Prime Minister is abolishing, is one of the those with the biggest reputation for such a culture. The battle between the Government and a deeply pro-EU Foreign Office would be another example of the problem.)

Such a development would only deepen the disadvantage faced by ministers, who do tend to move around, unless accompanied by further reforms to help them get an immediate political grip – further complicating the whole process.

A common assumption of Conservative reformers is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Government to devise an effective way to simulate the dynamics of the private sector. It isn’t obvious that this is any less true for creative destruction than anything else.

The ultimate tragedy of Civil Service reform may ultimately be that no amount of huffing and puffing can replicate Schumpeter’s Gale.

George Bathurst: We must prize the dead hand of officialdom from our railway network

17 Jul

George Bathurst is a former Conservative Councillor and lead member at Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. As well as promoting better transport solutions he works in IT infrastructure and cyber security.

As Boris Johnson promises to ‘build build build’ to lead us out of the lockdown, how will we decide which infrastructure projects? Will they be state-led or market-led? Is there even a difference? And what role will competition play?

Stories of great infrastructure competitions are still told hundreds of years later. Isambard Kingdom Brunel lost the competition to build the Bristol suspension bridge but he didn’t give up: when the initial winner foundered, he was invited back.

Unfortunately, like beautiful bridges, competitions have become to be seen as old-fashioned, belonging to a different, less-enlightened age, childish at best and akin to war at worst. Wouldn’t it be better if we could all just agree, get on with it without the drama? Can’t everybody be a winner?

But if you think competitions are not the future, consider the website you are reading right now. Look at the little padlock in your web browser that indicates your connection is encrypted. This is the result of one of the most successful competitions of all time, something I’m familiar with from my work in cyber security.

In 1997, the American National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) invited proposals for what was to be the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

It was a stunning success, laying the foundation for the explosion of internet commerce that followed. The fact that home working during the present pandemic is even a practical option for so many of us is the result. It’s so good that even twenty years later, government spies have all but given up trying to hack it (which is why we see repeated calls for legislation to break it).

Even the losers in the competition were pleased with it. Bruce Schneier, one of the authors of the Twofish algorithm, said, “I have nothing but good things to say about the NIST and AES process.” He went on to fix some of the criticisms of his own cipher and it’s now included in OpenPGP, widely used for encrypting emails.

Now let’s compare this with competitions run by the UK Department for Transport. Take the southern rail link to Heathrow, for example.

Two years ago Chris Grayling, the then Transport Secretary, felt that surely one of the richest regions in the country could fund this privately. He announced Market-Led Proposals, saying that “the government doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas.”

Five companies worked up serious proposals in response. These included: MTR, the Hong Kong-based Crossrail operator, a proposal for a new high speed railway from Heathrow to Dover via Gatwick, HS4; a light railway from Staines, promoted by Spelthorne Council; the Heathrow Southern Railway, a link from Heathrow to Woking, which they spent over £2 million developing; and my company the Windsor Link, which combined the western and southern links to Heathrow into one holistic solution, saving over £1 billion versus building both with the bonus of improving congestion and air quality in what is a nationally significant strategic pinch point just west of the airport.

All of us were defeated, however. Officials hired consultants, many of whom were former officials, to conduct a secretive ‘market sounding’. The anonymous respondents apparently preferred the status quo, no competition, just to be told what to do. Having pretended to consider the various ideas, officials decided that a sixth idea, their own, was the best. Grayling was forced to explain to Parliament why taxes on some of the poorest communities in London would increase to pay for rich people to get to the airport more quickly.

Market-Led Proposals had become government-led proposals, the government monopoly reaffirmed.

My experience of this was a rare invitation to the Department for a debrief. Sitting opposite my colleagues and me were the officials in charge of the process. We were told that they had looked at competition in Italy but had concluded that all it led to was corruption.

What shocked me (but shouldn’t have) was the attendance of the official in charge of that sixth idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the individual; as with all the Civil Servants I have met, he was trying to do his best. It was that it was just that it was like selling BMW cars to the Government and then learning that the government buyer worked for Mercedes.

I felt ashamed that had led my team into a trap. It wasn’t that we hadn’t seen it coming. We had carefully explained that our first phase was complementary to any Heathrow link. We and many others had also responded to the Government’s consultation, called for openness and fairness, and received assurances. It was that, naively, I had believed them. Wiser people than me had stayed out of the competition altogether.

The tragedy is that two years later this Heathrow link is no closer to being built. The same is true of western access to Heathrow: officials have been promising to submit planning permission by Christmas for the last four years.

Much worse is that it is also true of a myriad of other rail schemes across the country. The official list of rail schemes actually being progressed is a sad reflection of our collective failure to meet the needs of the public. The last page of this document, of ideas not-invented-here, what officials call ‘third party schemes’, is blank.

The new Government is promising to increase investment in transport, but haven’t we been here before? Stephen Buyers renationalised Railtrack 20 years ago and abandoned spending restraints. How realistic is it that the same input to the same system will result in different outcomes?

How do we protect schemes like the Brighton Main Line 2 (given the thumbs-up earlier this month) or a new trans-Pennine route where, even amongst those that break through to some encouraging feedback, almost all eventually lose to doing nothing?

In Network Rail’s Hansford Review, contestability was the theme but at the launch event I attended the consultant hired to write it asked plaintively: but if there is competition who would be in control?

This is the key. In an open competition, nobody fully controls it.

In the encryption competition, the American government got a good result when it stopped trying to fix the outcome. (They had previously tried to imprison Phil Zimmerman, the founder of PGP.) They chose the winners at the end of the competition, not before it started.

More importantly, despite it being all about secrecy, the competition was conducted in public, not just open in the sense that anybody, from anywhere could compete, but open all the way through with every decision debated in public. NIST performed the role of Adam Smith’s ‘impartial observer’.

In my previous ConHome article, I gave credit to Grant Shapps, the new Transport Secretary, for the effective renationalisation of the train operating franchises because this gives an opportunity to remove the conflict of interest that has defeated all his predecessors: that officials are both proponents and judges of their own schemes (breaking Burke’s fundamental rule of good government).

The fake competitions that result (the franchises being another example) aren’t just bad for anybody who wants to improve our railways, public or private: they don’t make the government look good either. Grayling left office with his reputation so battered that even his subsequent appointment as an unpaid trustee of the National Portrait Gallery was controversial. Bernadette Kelly, the Permanent Secretary, was excoriated by the Public Accounts Committee’s Spring Report.

I’m imagining a world where our Transport officials and ministers are praised to the sky, like at NIST. All that it requires is for them to let go, stop picking winners, and let genuinely open competition do that for them.

James Roberts: Big state spender Roosevelt shouldn’t be Gove’s new role model

1 Jul

James Roberts is Political Director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Our de facto prime minister, Michael Gove, has been a busy man. On Tuesday, he was in the Commons explaining Mark Sedwill’s sudden departure. At the weekend, he delivered a much-vaunted address to the prestigious Ditchley Foundation, joining a long line of luminaries: Mark Carney, David Milliband, John Major, Chris Patten, to name but a few.

Sparing the blushes of the distinguished Ditchley crowd, Gove didn’t mention Brexit much. But what he did deliver was a rare tour de force about the challenges facing Western governments, delivered with daring incisiveness by the Government’s ‘Hand of the King’. If the ever-authoritative media talking heads (and rapidly-departing civil service barons) want to know what ‘hard rain’ that nasty Dominic Cummings has in store for them, Gove’s lecture was a good place to start.

He didn’t pull his punches. For the ‘Forgotten Man’, faith in the system has been broken, “compounded by cultural condescension and insulation from accountability”, with the policy-making elites in political parties and the civil servants in the dock.

Reasonable demands, or taxpayers’ money to be well spent on accessible public services that actually work have been ignored. The top tiers of mandarin management are stuffed with like-minded PPE-ists, dripping in self-reinforcing groupthink, preaching every form of diversity going – except diversity of thought.

Gove described with brutal accuracy the tendency to coalesce around a cosy Westminster consensus, perpetuated by media commentary and pressure group plaudits, with almost non-existent evaluation of real world delivery. But the government eco-system is dying – its credibility eroded away by constant deforestation to feed an insatiable 24 hour media cycle, the whims of easy-choices-only politicians and the childish tantrums of the Twitterati. The spirit of intellectual challenge has been driven out of the forest, with generic generalists climbing high and genuine innovators buried in the undergrowth.

He’s bang on. As Matt Ridley identified back in 2013, policy-making has long been broken: sometimes little more than a string of special interest spending demands; elaborated on by so-called experts; written into submissions by pedantic pen-pushers; approved by malleable ministers; and made into law by preoccupied politicians.

‘Doing something’ is the name of the game. If social media demands it, laws can be changed. If the media suggests it, money can be found. The Forgotten Man – that is, the taxpayers who pay for all this – be damned. Their preferences are secondary or even, as Gove suggests, absent entirely. A quick reference to ‘taxpayers’ money’ seems often enough to settle the consciences of Tory ministers, as they implement evermore expensive government intervention, because a hashtag told them to.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance knows calling this out doesn’t win you many friends: you can count on one hand the number of policy-makers willing to go against the grain. At DEFRA, lest we forget, Michael Gove was quick to join the chorus of environmentalist big spenders, navigating Theresa May towards a non-negotiable £1 trillion net zero commitment (which by our reckoning no government department has any idea of how to achieve). But then, there’s no zealot like a convert.

But a form of zealotry is exactly what government reform needs. The so-called ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service has broken down by the roadside. On that front, Gove wasn’t short on bold solutions. As our landmark polling last year with ConservativeHome’s columnist, James Frayne, showed, more than six in 10 working class taxpayers agree with the suggestion that we should move more central government offices and jobs outside of London.

Almost three quarters of them believe that all civil service jobs should be open to applicants without a degree, perhaps hoping to break the hold of the hapless humanities graduates. A hard-nosed look at value for money is vital, too.

Gove namechecked numerous programmes, including his old chum David Cameron’s £1 billion National Citizenship Service, which could benefit from a proper quantitative analysis of success and failure. There should be nothing noteworthy about a politician taking aim at programmes, like the £920 million Troubled Families scheme or (Gove’s own) Pupil Premium, and asking if these really delivered for taxpayers. But in the punch-and-judy pantomime of the current political debate, this feels revolutionary.

The same can be said of some of his other policy proposals. In a speech so wide ranging it would usually have a Prime Minister worried, Gove called for  planning reform to fast track beautiful development, better use of data in the NHS, transparency on court and school results, reviews for failed anti-radicalisation programmes, interrogating defence procurement contracts and accountability on the impact of aid spending. Many of these things should be music to taxpayers’ ears.

But the implications of all this are far from clear. As the punters know, policy outcomes matter more than policy processes. Reviews often come to nothing. Promises aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The devil’s in the detail. What does Gove actually want to achieve?

Does turning to more data in the NHS mean only allowing for government-made track and trace apps, which inevitably fail? Does it follow that reviewing a failed social programme results in it actually being abolished, and taxpayers getting their money back? Does accountability for aid spending mean cutting back the £15.2 billion cashpoint in the sky, or simply swapping money between dodgy dictators and wasteful NGOs?

he voters we polled wanted foreign aid reduced and reallocated to other priority areas such as the police, the NHS and schools. Very few people care how the sausage is made – they just want aid cut. But that’s an uncomfortable view in SW1, and incidentally not one that Michael Gove shares. It’s the same with the majority (68 per cent of C2DE voters) who backed abolishing the BBC licence fee. When he becomes inconvenient, or wants things that really upset the Westminster village applecart, the Forgotten Man is once again forgotten. Politicians just come up with better ways of ignoring him – the endless reviews and the broken promises.

In that sense, Gove’s speech could easily have been given by a much more fitting figure for the Ditchley Foundation: Tony Blair. Like Gove, he reached for the model of America’s big spending New Deal, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New Labour offered innovation, clever solutions and new public service delivery models, with a pledge and a commission for every occasion. Gove and his Cameronite contemporaries looked on in awe, while most Conservative voters were horrified at the economic paternalism, metropolitan condescension and fiscal vandalism of the Blair years.

Many still believed that reams of government data and endless initiatives can never outgun the free and rational choices of millions of individuals. Their ears still rung with the mocking rebuke of Ronald Reagan: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Endless cash flow means that civil servants, not taxpayers, still made the rules. The TaxPayers’ Alliance itself was founded to take a stand.

Blair paid the price for ignoring his own voters, and taxpayers got sick of the Westminster consensus he created – ‘expert’ policy tsars, expensive PFI, and constant right-on crusades – arguably leading up to the EU referendim result in 2016. For a man so intimately involved in that campaign, Michael Gove may sadly be in danger of starting off down the same path. Replacing Oxford-educated experts with world-beating data whizz kids, or swapping a programme here with a review over there, won’t change the Blairite policy-making consensus – unless there is fundamental change of political intention at the top.

Britain’s forgotten taxpayers need Michael Gove’s intentions to be as bold as his analysis.

“If this Government is to reform so much, it must also reform itself.” Gove’s speech on change in Whitehall. Full text.

28 Jun

“Writing in his Prison Notebooks, ninety years ago, the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci defined our times. “The crisis consists precisely of the fact that the inherited is dying – and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Gramsci’s analysis was developed between 1929 and 1935. The stability of the Edwardian Age – of secure crowns, borderless travel, imperial administrative elites and growing economic globalisation – was a memory. The inherited world of aristocratic liberalism had gone.

But a new world of liberal, democratic nation states with welfare systems, social insurance and cross-class solidarity was still a distant prospect. And for those who were charged with leadership there were any number of morbid symptoms affecting their bodies politic.

Economic depression had undermined faith in Western democracy. Traditional political and party structures broke down while protectionist trade barriers went up. Ideological polarisation divided families and societies, competition for resources generated international conflicts, new technologies offered expanded realms of opportunity but also unsettled traditional patterns of working, and threatened new and horrific means of destruction.

Our age is not the 1930s. But it is an age of morbid symptoms. The model that the current generation of political leaders inherited has been crumbling.

For much of the period since 1945, Western nations have had relatively stable party and political structures. The leaders of those nations, political and business, have justified their positions on the grounds of meritocracy – we’ve proved through our exertions we’re the best – and of efficiency – we’ve shown through the spread of economic growth and greater opportunity that we deliver.

But since the financial crisis of 2008 those foundations and assumptions have been systematically eroded.

Across Western Europe we’ve seen the political system we inherited fracture. Traditional Social Democratic parties have either been eclipsed or undermined to their left. Syriza in Greece overtook Pasok, Podemos in Spain took huge chunks out of the PSOE, the Dutch Labour Party lost three quarters of its vote in the last general election dropping from the 2n​ d ​to the 7t​ h ​largest grouping in parliament. The French Socialists were left for dust by the radical leftists of La France Insoumise and the German Social Democrats struggle to appeal to more than a sixth of their electorate, with a number of their former followers supporting the hard left Die Linke leading them to be consistently outpolled by the Greens.

Traditional Christian Democrat or Conservative Parties have tended to fare better. But parties of the radical or populist right have, in many cases, again either undermined their previous dominance or overtaken them entirely. Vox in Spain has chipped away at the PP. The AfD is the first party to the right of the CDU and CSU to sit in the Bundestag since the Federal Republic was established. In the Netherlands the parties of Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, difficult to pigeonhole, but certainly to the right of the traditional Dutch consensus, together have the support of almost twice as many voters as the Dutch Christian Democrats. In France, Marine Le Pen, and in Italy, Matteo Salvini, are the principal opposition figures – again, neither traditional Gaullists or Christian Democrats.

And even in countries where the traditional party structures appear to be continuous with the world we inherited, the parties now take positions which would have been unfamiliar, to put it mildly, to their leaders much less than a generation ago. In America, the ruling Republican orthodoxy is to be sceptical of free trade; unattracted by notions of conventional global leadership; unconvinced by the efficacy of alliances such as NATO. All those positions are departures, I’m sure most would agree, from the position of George W. Bush never mind George H.W. Bush.

It would take more time than I have available today, indeed perhaps more time than any of us still have to spend in our working lives, to establish definitively why this has been so.

But, at its root, is – I think – a deep sense of disenchantment on the part of many of our citizens with a political system they feel has failed them. The compact leaders offered – trust that we are the best, trust that we have your best interests at heart, and trust that we will deliver – was broken in their eyes.

Even before the financial crisis of 2008, economic growth was slowing across the West, as identified by economists from Robert J. Gordon to Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel.

And just as growth was slowing, so its diminishing benefits were becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of the already fortunate – as Andy Haldane put it in 2016, the economic pie has not risen rapidly, and the pie has been unevenly sliced. Those with higher level cognitive skills saw an increasing return for their labour, while those working in traditional manufacturing saw more of their jobs undertaken abroad and indeed saw wages undercut at home.

Globalisation, as practised, seemed to be eroding social solidarity and deepening a gulf between elites and those whom they governed or employed. And that gulf was not simply one of wealth. It was also one of sympathy.

As the British author David Goodhart analysed in his book, The Road to Somewhere,​ the gap between those with connections and credentials who can live and work anywhere, and those with fewer resources who remain rooted to the heartland, has only widened in recent years. And his work, preceded by Christopher Lasch, and supplemented by the writings of Paul Collier and J.D. Vance among others, underlines that those in the elite with cognitive skills, qualifications and professional mobility tend to have, or develop, different social and political values from other citizens.

The views, tastes and concerns of those who write for the New York Times​, run higher education institutions, chair business representative organisations, advise on ESG responsibilities for corporates and indeed run Government departments tend to have become more distant over time from those who build homes, manufacture automobiles, work in logistics, harvest food and dispose of waste. To colour it crudely: the former are more sensitive to the harm caused by alleged micro-aggressions; the latter are less likely to be squeamish about tougher sentences for those guilty of actual physical aggression.

This sense that those who had been in power had presided over a growing gulf in both wealth and attitudes, and were no longer working in solidarity with other citizens, was the backdrop for the crises in authority which started during the first decade of this century.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which I supported I should add, were widely seen to have been mismanaged – one suffering from endless revision and ending in retreat; the other perceived to be launched in haste and error; and both revealing faults in policy-making and execution.

Crises of authority in the church consequent upon abuse revelations, in our Parliament following the expenses scandal and in the media after phone-tapping allegations all unsettled faith in existing leadership.

The migrant crisis on Europe’s southern shores raised profound issues about just how humane and civilised our elites were.

And all these discontents were rising as the world faced the terrible fallout from the financial crisis. Those in politics and business who had been trusted to generate increasing prosperity and provide for social security were found more than wanting. For many, they had failed to anticipate the crisis, failed to identify or take responsibility for what had gone wrong, failed to ensure the burden of repair was fairly shared, failed to reform the institutions, especially the finance and business institutions at the heart of the crisis, and failed to recognise the scale of change society demanded.

All these factors underlay the revolt against the elites which saw voters desert established parties, withdraw their support for the economic consensus which had underpinned globalisation for at least three decades and, in many cases, opt for polarised identity politics rather than stay with broad-based national political movements.

These morbid symptoms weakened our politics before the terrible global impact of the coronavirus and have shaped how many have seen the response to that crisis. During the epidemic we have been made more powerfully aware of entrenched inequalities across the globe, seen how fragile the networks of our interconnected world have become, been reminded that confidence in projections about the future trajectory of a complex phenomenon is often undone.

And the Covid epidemic has also, tragically, underlined the racial and ethnic inequalities in many societies, not least our own. The disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME communities is both heartbreaking and a reproach. The reasons for this particular tragedy are various and require further, rigorous, investigation. But there can be no doubt that they reflect structural inequality in our society which must be addressed.

As we seek to restore our fractured economies and heal our divided societies following the advent of this pandemic, we must also be aware of other, complex and unpredictable, challenges we must overcome.

Science and technology, invaluable tools in tackling this pandemic, will bring other, dramatic, benefits to our world in the near future. Big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics and further automation, 3D printing, quantum computing and other advances will transform the manufacturing and service economy. Genetic sequencing and screening, gene editing and other life science and biotech advances could enable transformations in healthcare and environmental stewardship.

All these developments have the potential to improve lives and livelihoods across the globe. But they also require us to think carefully about the moral questions they can raise.

We have seen all too recently how progress, enabled by technology, has brought gains but also exposed flaws in how we organise our societies. The development of our global financial systems enabled capital to be more efficiently allocated, risk to be more effectively hedged and innovation to be more powerfully incentivised – but they also created the conditions for hugely profound economic dislocation.

So, as we contemplate new technological and scientific breakthroughs we must also consider the ethical and political challenges they bring. Unless they are thoughtfully addressed, we risk worsening the morbid symptoms of our times.

The changes to the workplace the Fourth Industrial Revolution is likely to bring will see many current jobs and occupations either disappear or alter dramatically. The division between the fortunate and the forgotten could deepen perilously.

Life science and biotech breakthroughs raise old questions about equitable access to healthcare in new, potentially very uncomfortable, ways and open new territory for ethical concerns about our relationship with the natural world of which we are indivisibly part.

And in speaking of the natural world, the growing loss of biodiversity and the threat of climate change also reinforce how existing inequalities and vulnerabilities risk becoming more pronounced and how we need to understand that complex, adaptive systems demand respectful attention, not glib assertions of mastery.

And what makes these concerns pressing is the knowledge that all these changes – to technology, industry, employment, healthcare, food production, biodiversity and the climate – are coming at us fast.

If we are to be equal to all these challenges, then – as the Prime Minister knows and feels passionately – we need to both acknowledge the scale of the change and be ready to change ourselves. Those in political leadership most of all.

And just as the challenges of the Thirties inspired change, both good and bad, in the nature of political leadership – in the shape and scope of Government, in our sense of duty to the poorer, the vulnerable and the excluded, in our use of technology, in our sense of national and social solidarity – so we must ensure we follow the same, constructive, progressive, inclusive path that the best men and women chose then.

And for me, no one walked that path better, in what W.H Auden called the low, dishonest, decade that was the Thirties, than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When he assumed office in 1933, faith in free markets and the capitalist economy was ebbing dramatically. Indeed confidence in democracy itself was fragile – with, even in America, the idea of dictatorial executive authority winning surprising support.

FDR managed to save capitalism, restore faith in democracy, indeed extend its dominion, renovate the reputation of Government, set his country on a course of increasing prosperity and equality of opportunity for decades – and enabled America to emerge from a decade of peril with the system, and society, that the free citizens of the rest of the world most envied.

He succeeded on such a scale, of course, because he was a remarkable leader.

But there were principles underpinning his approach which I think we should learn from now, as we seek to overcome our own crises of authority; as we seek to reform capitalism, re-invigorate support for democracy, get Government working better for all and build more inclusive societies.

First, Roosevelt took it as a given that no society could succeed unless every citizen within it had the chance to succeed. Throughout his political career he had been concerned by the plight of the poor and vulnerable, and he knew they needed Government on their side if they were to achieve the dignity, status and independence they aspired to. Reform was needed, ‘that builds from the bottom up and not from the top down, that puts faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid’.

There are too many in our time and our society whose economic interests, and indeed whose values, have been forgotten. In our unequal times we must attend increasingly to those who have suffered from neglect and condescension and to those whose lives have been scarred by racism and prejudice. Our contemporary work of reform must put them first.

Second, Roosevelt recognised that faced with a crisis that had shaken faith in Government, it was not simply a change of personnel and rhetoric that was required but a change in structure, ambition and organisation. The establishment of new bodies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Public Works Association, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration demonstrated a willingness to break the mould of the past. Of course, not every initiative upon which Roosevelt embarked was successful – but he recognised even before he became President that no one can predict at the start of a policy what its end will be. What is needed is both ambition in scope and honesty in assessment.

Faced with tumultuous and difficult times, Roosevelt knew government had to be flexible, adaptive and empirical. That meant taking risks, but it also meant the humility to know when to change course – as he argued in 1932, ‘The country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another’.

And third, Roosevelt empowered reformers. Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Louis Brandeis, Hugh Johnson and others were drawn from different traditions, backgrounds and disciplines – and they were set missions. Their role was not to administer existing machines, or proclaim abstract virtues, but to act – to achieve real and concrete change in the lives of others.

As we contemplate the scale of the challenges ahead, for this country, and the wider democratic world, the lessons of FDR’s success have much to teach us.

This Government was elected on the basis that it would be different from its predecessors, as the Prime Minister set out so brilliantly during the election campaign – and events have only made that mission of change more urgent. We have set out plans for reform in technical education, schools, the environment, international development, housing and planning, science, digital infrastructure, taxation, public procurement, transport and across the field of Government.

But if this Government is to reform so much, it must also reform itself.

As FDR recognised, the structures, ambitions and priorities of the Government machine need to change if real reform is to be implemented and endure.

It is part of my job in the Cabinet Office to help drive that change. To demonstrate the good that Government can do, to reaffirm the nobility of service to the public, to strive every day to use the money, and the powers, the people have vested in us to improve their lives.

Public service is a privilege. Not because it brings wealth or ease. Many of those who work alongside me in the civil service could command higher salaries, and indeed face less stress, in other fields.

No, the privilege comes from knowing that those of us in Government have the chance every day to make a difference. The greatest gift any of us can be given is the opportunity to lead lives of purpose in public service – to know that by our efforts others stand taller. But with that privilege comes a duty. To ask ourselves if what we are doing is genuinely transformative. Can we prove that we have made a difference? Can we demonstrate the effectiveness of what we have done with other people’s money? Can we prove that the regulations and agencies we have established have made clear, demonstrable, measurable, improvements to the lives of others? And can we prove that in a way our fellow citizens can recognise, appreciate and applaud?

I ask, because I am conscious, in line with the starting imperative of FDR’s reform mission, just how distant, in so many senses, Government is from the people.

It is not just that all major Government departments are based in London, with the impact that concentration of senior jobs has on our economy. It is also the case that Westminster and Whitehall can become a looking-glass world. Government departments recruit in their own image, are influenced by the think tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan.

There is a tendency, and I am certainly not immune to it, to see success in Government measured by the sound of applause in the village, not the weight we lift from others’ distant shoulders. Favourable media commentary, pressure group plaudits, peer group approval, all drive activity. But what is less often felt is the pressure to show, over time, that programmes have been effective and enduring. Of the 108 major programmes for which Government is responsible, only 8% are actually assessed to judge if they have been delivered effectively and brought about the desired effects.

We politicians are principally to blame. We go for the sugar rush that comes from announcing radical initiatives, unveiling dramatic overhauls, launching new spending programmes, ramping up this and rolling out that. Done right, such moments can galvanise the system into action. But at times we risk the hunger for new policy announcements becoming insatiable.

There is also a tendency in Government to applaud the gracefully performative and overlook the boringly transformative. Inclusive lanyards, progressive hashtags and high-sounding declarations from champions of this-and-that good cause are often signals of noble intent, but they are no substitute for improving exam performance for children from under-performing ethnic minorities, enhancing the ability of prisons to rehabilitate or shifting our economic model to see higher returns to labour and fewer opportunities for rent-seeking.

Tackling these challenges isn’t easy. Worthwhile things seldom are. But we can begin by changing important ways in which we work.

We can, literally, reduce the distance between Government and people by relocating Government decision-making centres to different parts of our United Kingdom. And in doing so we should be striving to reflect the full diversity of our United Kingdom. Why shouldn’t some of the policymakers intimately involved in reshaping our approach to energy and the decarbonisation of our economy be in Teesside, Humberside and Aberdeen? Shouldn’t those thinking about this sector be part of the communities whose jobs depend on getting these decisions right?

And why are so many of those charged with developing our tax and welfare policies based in London?

Wouldn’t it be better for those deciding how taxpayers’ money is spent to be living and working alongside those citizens across the country, from Mansfield to Middlesbrough to Merthyr Tydfil, for whom every pound in tax is a significant inroad into their income? Should we not also be better at recruiting our policymakers from those overlooked and undervalued communities.

There have been relocations of Government in the past but they have generally been to cities such as Bristol and Sheffield, with a particular socio-economic profile and a particularly large proportion of existing university graduates. We need to be more ambitious for Newcastle, for Teesside and Teesdale, for North Wales, for the North-East of Scotland, for East Lancashire and West Bromwich.

I also think we need to look at how we can develop an even more thoughtful approach to devolution, to urban leadership and allowing communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them. One of the glories of the United States is that there are fifty Governors, all of whom can be public policy innovators. As so often, diversity is strength.

And an important part of bringing Government closer to people is making sure we have not just a wider spread of decision-making across the country but a broader and deeper pool of decision-makers.

Groupthink can affect any organisation – the tendency to coalesce around a cosy consensus, resist challenge, look for information to confirm existing biases and reject rigorous testing of delivery. It is the opposite of the bold, restless experimentation FDR called for. And it is particularly likely to occur when people are drawn from similar backgrounds. Indeed, as the academic Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, when you get a critical mass of people in any organisation who have similar outlooks, biases and preferences the minority who may dissent become progressively more uncomfortable about doing so.

The more that fluent, intelligent, kind and sensitive people explain that the Emperor’s New Clothes are a thoughtful co-creation blending public and private sector expertise from the textile and non-textile communities, benchmarked against international norms and sensitive to both body positivity feedback and non-judgemental protocols concerning the tone-policing of issues around personal space, the less likely someone is to call out that the guy is naked.

Which is why, as we strive to diversify the Government’s presence across the United Kingdom, we should also seek to diversify the talent pool from which we draw.

How can we in Government be less southern, less middle class, less reliant on those with social science qualifications and more welcoming to those with physical science and mathematical qualifications – how can we be less anywhere and more somewhere – closer to the 52% who voted to Leave, and more understanding of why?

Almost every arm of Government, and those with powerful voices within it, seemed estranged from the majority in 2016. That is not to say their views were not honest, principled and public-spirited. It is just to observe that a view, a perspective, a set of beliefs, which the majority, albeit slight, held in this country were rarely heard within Government. FDR asked his Government to remember the Forgotten Man. In the 2016 referendum those who had been too often forgotten asked to be remembered.

And as well as valuing a diversity of views we should also, as I implied earlier, value a diversity of skills. The manner in which Government has rewarded its workers for many years now has, understandably, prized cognitive skills – the analytical, evaluative and, perhaps, above all, presentational. I believe that should change. Delivery on the ground; making a difference in the community; practicable, measurable improvements in the lives of others should matter more.

Public servants, including those who work for private sector organisations delivering public goods, such as those in the care sector, waste and refuse disposal, and the people who keep our hospitals hygienic and safe, should be at the centre of our policy-making. They are the people who have given so much in the recent crisis and represent the best in every community.

Of course we need to promote economic growth in everything we do. But the purpose of economic growth is to build a more civilised society. As the Prime Minister has consistently argued, we should be a pro-worker, pro-public servant People’s Government.

The second Rooseveltian challenge is to change how Government itself works, to reorganise its institutions to become better at reform. The need for reform in so many areas is obvious. And this Government is determined to deliver it in a way that is consistent with our moral values.

We need to make opportunity more equal. We need to make productivity gains across our country more equitable. We need a just transition to a lower carbon world. We need to confront and stamp out racism wherever we find it. We need to heal and unite our country in the face of division and polarisation around identity. We need to make the twin virtues of earning and belonging work for others, and ensure that solidarity across communities defeats the forces of division and dependence which dissolve the ties that bind.

At the heart of our programme must be a focus on what works – what actually helps our fellow citizens to flourish.

That means, first, rigorous evaluation of Government programmes. What value do they add? What incentives do they provide for better performance and better service to others? The Treasury has been, historically, very good at questioning the cost of projects, but not their broader social value. Asking that question is not an evasion of Governmental responsibility but an embrace of it. And politicians like me must take responsibility for the effect of their actions and the consequences of their announcements.

I helped set up National Citizen Service. It is a noble ideal. But by what criteria do we judge it a success? The numbers who have signed up, and the warmth they feel about the programme, are welcome. But what has society, measurably, achieved for that expenditure?

I am proud to have played a part in setting up the Free Schools programme. But it is important to ask what, measurably and consistently, we have achieved through that investment.

In the aftermath of the 2011 riots I pressed for a range of reforms. But however well-intentioned they all were we need to be honest and self-critical about their progress. Have the Gangs Taskforce and the use of Gang Injunctions made people safer and helped young people out of the Criminal Justice System?

One of the reforms of which I am proudest was the introduction of the Pupil Premium to support disadvantaged children. I believe it has been transformative. But we need hard, testable, data on how it has worked. How well have we captured how effectively it is spent in the best schools and how are we setting about analysing what lessons to learn elsewhere?

To answer these questions properly, indeed to use the answers to drive improvement in public services, requires Government to change.

First, Government needs to be rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects. And in doing so, we need to ask not only questions about spending per se, but about effectiveness against ambition. It may well be legitimate to say that Government wants to spend a large amount to achieve an incremental improvement in a specific area – such as support for children in care. The crucial question is what benefits have the extra spending and attention brought?

That is not penny-pinching. It’s a real concern that the vulnerable benefit. What are the metrics against which improvement will be judged? How are appropriate tools such as randomised controlled trials deployed to assess the difference being made? How do we guard against gaming and confirmation bias? All across Government at the moment that widespread rigour is missing.

Which is just one of the reasons why the machinery needs to change.

Government needs to evaluate data more rigorously. That means opening up data so others can judge the effectiveness of programmes as well. We need proper challenge from qualified outsiders.

If Government ensures its departments and agencies share and publish data far more, then data analytics specialists can help us more rigorously to evaluate policy successes and delivery failures. People’s privacy must be protected. But once suitably anonymised, it is imperative that we learn the hugely valuable lessons that lie buried in our data.

We also need to ask in those areas where our data is world class, as with the NHS, how we can use that to power scientific breakthroughs. Suitably anonymised, the deep and broad pool of health data we have can improve diagnostics and treatment, support life science innovation and close the health inequality gap.

And, perhaps most importantly, Government must ask itself if its people have the skills necessary for these challenges.

For many decades now the Civil Service has neglected to ensure its senior members have all the basic skills required to serve Government, and our citizens, well.

There are many brilliant people in our civil service, and I have never come across any civil servant who did not want to do his or her best for the country. But, nevertheless, there are a limited number, even in the Senior Civil Service, who have qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions – and these are essential to public policy decisions. As governments in developed nations go, we in the UK are lagging behind many others in terms of numerical proficiency. But so many policy and implementation decisions depend on understanding mathematical reasoning.

That means we need to reform not just recruitment, but training. We need to ensure more policy makers and decision makers feel comfortable discussing the Monte Carlo method or Bayesian statistics, more of those in Government are equipped to read a balance sheet and discuss what constitutes an appropriate return on investment, more are conversant with the commercial practices of those from whom we procure services and can negotiate the right contracts and enforce them appropriately.

I should also add that it is important that those of us who are politicians have the knowledge, skills, and indeed humility, to be able to ask the right questions and understand the answers. Reforming how Government works requires ministers who can reform themselves.

And the need for appropriate skills, training and knowledge within Whitehall goes much further than the areas I have mentioned. Submissions, the papers which are prepared to guide ministerial decisions, and which were once the glory of our Civil Service, have become in far too many cases formulaic, over-long, jargon-heavy and back-covering exercises. The ability to make a tight, evidence-rich, fact-based, argument which doesn’t waste words or evade hard choices is critical to effective Government. As is deep, domain-specific, knowledge.

The Prime Minister has rightly argued that foreign policy-making is often weakened by the lack of deep knowledge of the language, culture and history of the nations with whom we are negotiating or whom we seek to influence.

As William Hague has pointed out, the decision to close the Foreign Office language school was an act of national self-harm and his restoration of it, along with his establishment of a new Diplomatic Academy, was a necessary renovation.

That same determination to instil and cultivate deep knowledge should apply across Government. Too much current Civil Service training is about vapid abstractions such as ‘Collaborating Better’ rather than about what works in classroom instruction or how to interrogate climate modelling or what really goes on in the preparation of Crown Prosecution cases which leads to so many cracked trials.

Of course, the vast majority of civil servants strive mightily to master the policy or delivery area they are asked to cover. And I owe a personal debt to many great civil servants who have helped secure lasting change, who have warned me off foolish initiatives and who have demonstrated the very best in rigorous policy thinking. But there are systemic problems which mean we often lose institutional memory and fail to build on hard-won success.

With the exception of a few bodies such as the Education Endowment Foundation there are precious few Government-sponsored or owned sources of reliable evidence on what works.

And the current structure of the Civil Service career ladder means that promotion comes from switching roles, and departments, with determined regularity. Just at the point that an official at DIT who is a deputy director masters the intricacies of tariff schedules and their impact on important UK sectors and the opportunities that arise from liberalisation with Ruritania, he or she, if they want to progress in their career, aspires to become a director in DFE overhauling child protection.

Commentators, rightly, criticise the rapid turnover of ministers and the seemingly random reshuffle of Parliamentary Under-Secretaries for Paperclips after just a year to become Ministers of State for Paper Files. But far less noticed and just as, if not more, damaging, is the whirligig of Civil Service transfers and promotions.

We must be able to promote those with proven expertise in their current role to perform the same, or similar, functions with greater status and higher rewards without them thinking they have to move away from the areas they know and love to rise in their profession. We would not ask an Orthopaedics Registrar to become a psychiatrist in order to make consultant. So why should we require an expert in agriculture negotiations with the EU to supervise the Universal Credit IT system to see their career progress?

So, if we are to make the most of the amazing talent that we have in such abundance in the Civil Service, we need to both train better and incentivise more smartly. We need to ensure that those in Government have access to teaching which develops deep knowledge.

We know already from evidence of what works in education that mastery of deep knowledge is the precondition of creativity and open-mindedness. Confident musical literacy, achieved after learning to read scores, practise scales and move from laborious application to automatic performance, allows the performer to become not just the passive reciter of others’ achievements but the author of original new work of quality and merit. Similarly, if those in Government have deep subject knowledge they move from reciters of the jargon generated by producer interests into the creators of original policy that serve the widest possible public interest.

That is why we need to ensure that we have a proper, and properly-resourced campus for training those in Government. One which is not preoccupied with the latest coaching theology or sub-business school jargon but equips the many hugely talented people within the Civil Service to become as knowledgeable in their policy areas as consultant surgeons, chancery barristers and biochemistry professors are in theirs. And, more than that, we need to ensure that basic writing, meeting chairing and time management skills are de rigueur.

The third Rooseveltian imperative I have invoked is the bias towards experimentation. And this is perhaps the hardest to achieve.

There are so many barriers to doing things differently in Government, and so many incentives to play safe that it is difficult to know where to start.

It is a cliché to say of Government that no-one ever lost their job for recommending the contract go to IBM.

Decide that you will procure services from a new organisation and, if things go wrong, you will face the wrath of the NAO, the criticism of self-righteous chairs of parliamentary select committees, the hindsight-rich rancour of newspaper columnists and the disappointed froideur of your Permanent Secretary and Secretary of State.

Elect to have the service performed by an established supplier, choose to assess their performance by deferring to management consultants, set up a board to manage the process with officials from lots of different departments and you can be insulated from failure. The delivery companies are too big to fail, too embedded in so much else that Government does, too sanctified by the faith other departments have placed in them. The consultants are an invaluable prophylactic – if these super bright people from the private sector with MBA degrees and huge earnings outside said it was ok, it must have been. And the cross-Whitehall board is the biggest insurance policy of all. You can’t hold me accountable – it was a ‘shared’ decision.

All of these factors work against innovation – and accountability. Innovation comes when people take reasonable risks – and responsibility. We need to move to a system where those who propose the innovative, the different, the challenging, are given room to progress and, if necessary, fail. But we must then ensure that we learn quickly, adjust and respond.

In my time in politics I have got many things wrong. But I have, most of the time, been blessed by the ability of Prime Ministers to forgive, provided I learned the lesson.

That is why it is the responsibility of those in positions of political leadership – myself chief among them – to support those who try something different and defend them if, at first, it doesn’t work. And to ensure we learn why and do better next time.

My first attempt as Education Secretary at a new history curriculum was deeply flawed, but the challenge it provoked improved on everything that had gone before. My cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme was a political fiasco, but it led to a method of commissioning new school buildings that saved the taxpayer billions. My proposal to bring back O-Levels strained the bonds of the 2010-2015 coalition and had to be abandoned but it led to a significant improvement in GCSE standards and school performance.

I should add that those GCSE reforms only worked because of the leadership of two outstanding public servants – Dame Glenys Stacey and Amanda Spielman – who ran the exams watchdog Ofqual at the time. They stood firm in the face of orchestrated opposition from those who wanted standards lowered, and helped end grade inflation. Exam reform was a rocky road but they made the experiment work.

We need, as a Government, to create the space for the experimental and acknowledge we won’t always achieve perfection on Day One. We will throw everything at increasing ventilator capacity, some projects will misfire, some will seem promising but fall at the final hurdle, but along the way we may end up with unexpected gains, and as we have seen in the past few months, a willingness to experiment will help drive up a huge increase in ventilator capacity.

here is a particular merit also in investing in the literal experimentation of pure science. As the success of DARPA in the US shows, sometimes by design, and sometimes by obliquity, hugely beneficial innovation can occur. Of course, some of the projects in which DARPA has invested have failed and foundered, but the knowledge that high ambition is supported and incentivised and wrong turnings accepted as necessary costs along the way has brought huge benefits.

But far too often, innovation in Government is treated as though it were a mischief rather than a model. The default mechanism of the NAO, PAC, other select committees and various commentators is that any departure from the status quo must be assumed to be more downside than upside. Had they been able to interrogate George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in 1783 they would have concluded that American independence was an expensive, untried and unjustifiable innovation. In Treasury terms it would have been novel and contentious and therefore stopped.

The whole culture of Government, and the wider world of political commentary, is hostile to risk, adventure, experimentation and novelty. But the experience of FDR and his administration was that it was only through big risks, and radical experiments, that progress could be assured. Many of the programmes initiated as part of the New Deal failed on their own terms. But, overall, the re-orientation of Government to help the Forgotten Man, to restore hope in place of fear, to change Government so it worked for all citizens and to be bold and restless in experimentation of new ways of working succeeded.

That is why now we should, as is our intention as Government, reform planning rules to fast track beautiful development, pioneer biodiversity net gain to offset any adverse consequences of development, better use anonymised NHS data to improve healthcare delivery, allow parents and others to compare schools on value added, exam entries and attendance, among other factors, compare individual courts, judges and CPS managers on their efficacy on processing cases, look at how successful individual prisons are at delivering education and rehabilitation programmes, compare that with re-offending rates, assess the effectiveness of anti-radicalisation programmes, ask what value for money gains the Troubled Families Programme has secured, interrogate the basis on which defence procurement contracts are considered value for money, ask how we judge the real impact of development spending, and I could go on.

The heart of my case, as I hope you now appreciate, is simple.

Faith in conventional political parties, their leadership and their allies in business has been broken.

Failures of policy and judgment have put previously existing elites in the dock.

Their misjudgements, in the eyes of many, have been compounded by cultural condescension and insulation from accountability.

The concerns of our fellow citizens are real. They matter. Their analysis is resonant. To carry on rejecting it will only weaken our politics and strengthen division.

We have faced similar, though not identical, crises, before.

To face the crisis honestly, we must change.

Confronted with a similar, though not identical, challenge in the 1930s FDR identified the need to: a) make the Forgotten Man – ie the victim of crisis and inequality, our first concern; b) transform Government to make it the efficient force for good the times command; and c) experiment and explore different routes in a crisis to escape with an emphasis on risk-taking.

I defy anyone now to say that the scale of the challenges our governments face are lesser than those faced by FDR in 1932, or the scale of change required is smaller.

If the suggestions for change I have put forward are wrong, or mistaken, which they may honestly be, I hope the response is to call for greater radicalism not less. ​We should always be receptive to bold new policy proposals. Now we must listen to ideas on transforming government itself, such as those from GovernUp and the Commission for Smart Government which it will shortly launch, because the machinery of government is no longer equal to the challenges of today. We owe change to the people we serve.

Every morning I wake up saddened by the fact we haven’t done more to make the most of every talent in our land, reproaching myself that we did not do more in children’s social care, primary schooling and secondary schooling to provide opportunities and keep young people safe. I worry that we have not succeeded in reforming the youth justice system, the police, the CPS and the courts. But we can do better, we can redeem souls, we can save lives through public sector reform. If money is rightly directed, properly authorised and its spending effectively evaluated then massive progress can be made.

Let me end on a personal note. I am in public service, as an MP and Government Minister, because I want to tackle inequality. I have other passions – the environment, culture, especially opera, and sport, especially football. But my driving mission in politics is to make opportunity more equal. I want to ensure that whatever their background, every child has the chance to succeed, and nothing we do should hold them back. It is on that basis I make my case and on which I am happy to be judged.”