Monday, 15 March 2010

John Henwood's Utopian Fantasies

While the Government regards policy as the responsibility of Ministers and administration as the responsibility of officials, questions of administrative policy cause confusion between the policy of administration and the administration of policy, especially when responsibility for the policy of administration conflicts with responsibility for the policy of administration of policy. (Sir Humprey Appleby, Yes Minister.)

John Henwood was on BBC Radio Jersey this morning, on the subject of "Who runs Jersey?" citing the ever popular mantra "Ministers decide policy, civil servants administer that policy. It really is as simple as that."

Actually, if such a simplistic state of affairs really existed, no one would have ever written "Yes Minister". In "Yes Minister", the only thing the Minister cannot really do is decide policy; what happens is that he is presented with policy choices by the Civil Service, of which only one really can be chosen. Hacker asks about this at one point:

Hacker: How should I know which one to choose?
Bernard: It's like any Civil Service option. It will be a conjuring trick. Take any card, you always end up
with the card the magician forced you to take.
Hacker: Suppose I don't take it?
Bernard: You will.

When Hacker tries to write his own policy documents, he is heavily leant on by Sir Humphrey who advises him that he will have to get it "checked over" by the department for all kinds of reasons - feasibility, budget, manpower requirements etc etc.

Is "Yes Minister" truer to real life than the John Henwood scheme of things?

Here is a real example of how government and civil service interact, not in John Henwood's fantasy Utopia, but in real life:

Jack Straw: I sometimes got irritated with the Prime Minister and would tease him 'was this another injunction to push water uphill with my bare hands?' but there was a creative tension, which I think worked. I'll just give you a good example of this; he started to look at longer term targets for getting crime down. He said 'Look, I think you ought to be able to get car crime down and burglary down by' I think the figures were 50% and 40% respectively, so I thought 'Cripes this is a bit of a tall order', and the I went back to the department and I said 'Well what do we think, if we really got our act together?' and I had a negotiation and we fetched up with targets of 40% and 30% and achieved them and unless that monitoring had been taking place externally, frankly we wouldn't have done that.

So there we have a Minister, Jack Straw (then Home Secretary) coming to his department with policy, and it is as he says "a negotiation"; it is not simply a case of deciding policy and that's it, which is what John Henwood was saying on BBC Radio Jersey.

Why is this? Because there is a degree of power within the civil service. Again, another real case - this time from Sir Michael Barber, brought in to reform the way the civil services did things:

Sir Michael Barber: A lot of what I was doing in relation to the Civil Service, was changing a mindset where people said, 'oh we've tried that before and it doesn't work' or, 'why not have some more pilot studies, or slow it down?' and I was saying 'but that what we're here for, this a mission, it's a moral purpose, we're committed to this' and injecting that sense of ambition and saying, 'supposing you wanted to do it really well how would you do it?' rather than 'how do you get through the day?'

But from the Civil Service point of view, they are not conspiring to "block" Ministers, they are just doing their job to the best of their ability. This is the commentator Anne Perkins, in the excellent BBC Radio 4 documentary "Shape Up, Sir Humphrey"

Anne Perkins: Commitment or partisanship? Impartial advice or obstruction? Whitehall's full of subtle calls. Civil servants have to judge how far to take the duty described with a quaint Victorian dignity as 'speaking truth under power'. Mike Granatt, a former Head of Government Communications, thinks it's become very hard to tell ministers things they don't want to hear.

So responding to policies by challenging what the Minister wants, is , according to Michael Grannatt part of the Civil Service job. They have to make sure they are "offering unwelcome advice and telling people about options that might not be palatable but were necessary to describe" rather than "people just deliver what they think ministers want to hear". If they are badgered into acting the way the Minister wants, he sees this as "politicisation" of their role, they are not impartial.

Against this, of course, are politicians like David Blunkett who complaints is that civil servants try to force their policies onto the minister.

David Blunkett: The Home Office above all departments had what they thought of as departmental policy. It had evolved over the years and in the first few months they actually said 'but, Home Secretary, that isn't Home Office policy', and I said, 'no, Home Office policy is what I and my ministers tell you it is'.

So the situation in England is palpably more complex than John Henwood makes out. Is that true of Jersey? It would be surprising if it was not! We do not live in a utopia, and to pretend that we do, that all we need is "Ministers to make policy, civil servants to carry it out" is a nice ideal, but not one which bears much scrutiny in the real world in which most of us (but perhaps not John Henwood) have to live.

Is it the duty of civil servants to give honest but unpalatable advice where necessary, rather than just being "yes men"? Surely it is. Can they overstep this mark so that the advice feeds into the policy making process (as "guidance") so that it is the civil service, rather than the Minister, who is actually making the policy? Surely that can happen as well.

I think there has to be a balance. Civil servants should be able to deliver "unpalatable truths" to Ministers, but not to the detriment of policy making. How this is perceived by either group is interesting.

Civil Servants, on watching "Yes Minister" told the writers that they had the Ministers spot on, but the Civil Service was a parody of the truth. Ministers, on the other hand, commented that the Civil Service was spot on, but the Ministers were a parody. Of course, as Jonathan Lynn explained, they wrote the series deliberately from two points of view - how Ministers perceived Civil Servants, and how Civil Servants perceived Ministers.

Perception is not some impartial "god like" view; it is always from a point of view, and that is why there will never be a settled consensus between the administrators (and don't forget, that is the background from which John Henwood is coming) and Ministers.

All that can be hoped for is more transparency in the decision making process, so that any conflicts or prejudices can be made open (they might, in fact, be justified).

Senator Terry Le Sueur, on Talkback, was saying that since Stuart Syvret's time, there has been more consultation, and there have also been more independent and public overviews of departments - as for example, the Verita report, which he mentioned. It is such a shame that he contradicted himself by recently opposing Bob Hill's independent enquiry into Graham Power's suspension, and instead proposing his own "internal enquiry".

And viewers of "Yes Minister" have little doubt about what that might well mean!

Hacker: I don't expect you to understand, but government is not just a question of fixing and manipulating. There is a moral dimension.
Humphrey: Of, yes, of course, the moral dimension. It is never out of my thoughts.
Hacker: So if questions are asked in the press, I shall announce an inquiry.
Humphrey: Splendid idea. I shall be happy to conduct it.
Hacker: No, no, no, no, no. No, not an internal inquiry, a REAL inquiry.
Humphrey: You can't be serious!
Hacker: A real inquiry.

BBC Radio 4 "Shape Up, Sir Humphrey"
The transcripts are here, and well worth reading.


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