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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The mandarins hit back

If 'Yes, Prime Minister' is to be believed (and everybody I have heard on the issue acknowledges that it is eerily accurate), it is often the case that top civil servants believe that it is they who are running the country, not the politicians. In some instances this is the case, in others it is very far from the truth, but in a large number of real life situations the reality must fall between the two.

It would be very easy therefore to dismiss this report in the Sunday Times as frustrated Mandarins venting their grievances at an outgoing and unpopular Prime Minister. The chances are that it does contain some of that resentment but by-and-large the story paints a damning and damaging picture of the Brown government:

The report, Shaping Up: A Whitehall for the Future, was overseen by Sir Michael Bichard, a former permanent secretary, and will be published tomorrow. Some of the startlingly frank observations by civil servants include:

- Downing Street lacks a coherent strategy and is reduced to issuing “barmy ideas” as it squabbles with the Treasury. Giving No 10 greater powers would inflict only more harm on the country.

- Ministers have lost their grip: “The machine is starting to pull away from them. There is a sense that you are at the end of an era.”

- The Treasury has given up on its duty to control public spending because it has been “hijacked and turned into a social policy department, a welfare department, a reducing international debt department, an everything-under-the-sun department”.

The most damning criticism is contained in the interviews with nameless civil servants at the end of the story:

“It’s no great secret that Gordon is not strategic,” one figure told The Sunday Times, while another said Downing Street and its secretariats were “a cacophony of silence and confusion”. A third remarked: “The centre [No 10] is certainly dysfunctional and the Cabinet Office is fragmented.”

The report concludes: “The office of the British prime minister holds a concentration of formal power greater than that of almost any other country in the developed world.

“In contrast, the fragmentation and lack of co-ordination at the centre of the civil service — the Treasury, No 10 and the Cabinet Office — leads to an administrative centre that is relatively weak. This curious situation has created a strategic gap at the heart of British government which inhibits the ability to set overall government priorities and translate them into action.”

In unpublished research gathered by the institute, the director-general in one Whitehall department said: “What comes out of No 10 is lots of barmy ideas. It’s the worst possible kind of policy making, which is ‘here is a problem, let’s have a kneejerk reaction to it tomorrow on what we’re going to announce’ and quite frankly the less contact with No 10 the better.”

A former government figure said that at one stage the Treasury felt it could rein in Downing Street only by sending memos totting up the amount of spending commitments that No 10 had made each week. Another director-general told the institute: “All the worst bits of policy making come from the centre. It’s these people who think you change the world by publishing a strategy. And you don’t change a thing by publishing a strategy, it makes no difference whatsoever.”

The report finds: “There is a gap at the centre of Whitehall — a conspicuous lack of a single coherent strategy for government as a whole.”

It also says quite a lot about the state of mind of the Prime Minister and his entourage:

One retired mandarin who has worked for every premier since Margaret Thatcher said the bunker mentality was worse than at any stage under the Tories or Blair. He said: “It’s worse than under previous prime ministers. With Blair they did invite you to meetings, but not with Brown. They contracted into a little bunker.”

He added: “I had a very good working relationship with Downing Street under Blair but that changed when Brown came in and it contracted to a very small circle of people. You just got orders from Downing Street, not consultation, and that is still continuing today.”

I suspect we will have to judge for ourselves who to believe, the civil servants or the government's denials. I think that there are so personal agendas at work here that it will be difficult to make that call objectively.
Sounds more like 'The Thick of It' than 'Yes, Prime Minister'.
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