Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
When a crisis hits, long-term reform understandably slips down any leader’s priority list. Harold Wilson’s attempts to shake up government were scuppered by the sterling crisis. Edward Heath’s plans to roll back the tentacles of the state were derailed by an unemployment crisis and subsequent economic turmoil.
Now, with a general election less than two and a half years away, Boris Johnson’s promise of a ‘revolutionary overhaul’ of Whitehall seems little more than a pipedream. With the immediate threat of the pandemic having occupied much of the Government’s bandwidth, an agenda of radical reform has been firmly pushed into the ‘too-difficult pile’.
To be generous to the government, crises have a way of getting in the way of long-term thinking. As Harold MacMillan said “events, my dear boy, events”. However, there is little excuse for a government with an 80-seat majority not to address the well-known failures of Whitehall.
Former vaccine tsar Kate Bingham made a powerful intervention in The Times this week, claiming that had we relied on the existing machinery of government, our world-leading vaccination programme would have been no such thing. If things don’t change, she warned, we will be left woefully unprepared for the next public health emergency.
Highlighting the “devastating lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing” across all levels of government, she argued that civil servants have a tendency to treat business with “hostility and suspicion”. This, she said, had led to some damaging decisions such as the recent cancellation of the government’s contract with Valneva before its Covid vaccine had completed final clinical testing.
Bingham’s criticism of the culture of the civil service is damning, though unsurprising. She noted that the machinery of government is “dominated by process, rather than outcome”, that there is “a culture of risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging”, and that a preoccupation with how decisions may play with the media is impeding performance. Many people within the civil service will testify to this.
As the Institute of Economic Affairs has warned, the precautionary principle is very much embedded in government decision-making at all levels. A degree of risk aversion may be desirable under some circumstances, but it can be crippling in times of crisis, when what is needed is fast and decisive action.
As Bingham identifies, “groupthink” is one of the major challenges within Whitehall, as it is across so many of our publicly funded institutions. We know that the civil service is hampered by the dominance of a metropolitan left-liberal world view. Time and time again civil servants are accused of obstructing Conservative policies for political reasons – not least when it came to getting Brexit over the line.
Endless diversity and inclusion initiatives will do little to remedy this. Cummings’ credibility may be questionable, but his calls to recruit ‘weirdos and misfits’ into the civil service was a sound one. A civil service that does not allow for independent thought will fail to attract or retain the brightest minds. That’s if the painful box-ticking application process isn’t enough to put them off to begin with.
Of course, a crisis may derail long-term thinking, but it can also act as a catalyst for change. Bingham is right that the vaccine taskforce has demonstrated the value of the private sector – and Whitehall must learn form this. But with a headcount of over 465,000 people, the civil service is a beast to reckon with.
Real reform cannot be beyond the wit of man – Margaret Thatcher is proof of this. Yes, the Government has made attempts to reform the excessively bloated bureaucracy. The merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office was one such move. Plans to shift jobs out of London and link pay to performance may also help to encourage new ways of thinking and boost standards respectively. But these don’t go nearly far enough.
In recent weeks, it has become clearer that the Prime Minister lacks a coherent vision for this country. The tax burden, ever-increasing public spending, and endless statist interventions in the name of the green agenda show little in the way of any meaningful economic strategy.
Now, following his much-criticised speech to the CBI, it’s time for the Prime Minister to prove he does have a vision. One way would be to recommit to scaling back the scope of the state – and make good on his promise to sort out the machinery of government.