Thursday, 26 January 2012

The independence of the civil service – where did it all go wrong?

Yesterday we learned that the head of the UK's statistics watchdog has written a rebuke to Iain Duncan Smith over his department's handling of statistics in the immigration and benefits issues that Chris Grayling tried to make headway with last week. To those of us who have been following the Welfare Reform bill, and the DWP's attempts to shove it through Parliament, this will come as no surprise. The Department has a policy of deliberate, calculated and persistent misrepresentation of what they are trying to do with the “reform” of benefits. Francesca Martinez's phrase “morally disabled” was never more apt.

Specifically Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, questioned the way figures on immigrants claiming benefits were released last week, with a pre-release briefing given by ChrisGrayling and Damian Green, making it clear that the release was intended to whip up concern about immigrants taking taxpayers' money, without telling the full story, e.g. that immigrants are half as likely to claim as indigenous Brits.

Acomment piece by Mark Easton adds some context to this:

The profound concerns of the UK Statistics Authority at this kind of ministerial behaviour are reflected in a lecture Sir Michael gave at Cambridge University last year. "There are strong forces at work," he told his audience at St John's College, "whose natural outcome is, I suggest, to demote rationality, analysis and the pursuit of knowledge within government."

Referring to "a new kind of departmental minister whose consuming interest is in what the next day's press will say", Sir Michael referred to Whitehall's "diminishing interest in analysis and enquiry, and, in the field of government information, a growing interest in the persuasive press release, with its careful selection of facts and numbers, designed to communicate as effectively as possible some predetermined message."

There was a time when we had a civil service that would give independent advice to ministers, including the kind they didn't like to hear. I'm not sure that that makes a great deal of difference to the ministers we have currently at DWP. I think Chris Grayling for one would dump on anybody he could find, regardless of any advice he got. But overall it does make a difference. Today's civil servants are less inclined to stand out for what's right in the face of what is politically expedient. They have been trained to do what the government of the day wants, and thereby I think we have lost something from government. It was not always like this. And I know when it changed.

It was in the first five years of Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Labour did more to bring in “advisers”, but the fundamental move was made by Margaret Thatcher, and it made a massive difference. The department then known as DHSS (Department of health and Social Security, aka Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity, nothing much changes) used to (maybe it still does) run a summer school for non graduate employees who had shown themselves to be potential high fliers. It was held over a week at a Cambridge college. It was organised by an academic with the help of senior civil servants. Lots of academics and lots of senior civil servant attended, gave seminars, took part in question and answer sessions, chatted over meals, and generally gave the participants a magnificent experience of academic analysis and political discourse. They had a habit of inviting a few social workers. The employees were divided into groups for seminar work and each group got a social worker. Very few social workers in those days were interested in welfare rights. I was one of them and I was working in Cambridge at the time when Cambridgeshire were invited to nominate someone so I got to go to it. That was in 1979, after Margaret Thatcher had come to power but before she had had time to have much effect.

That summer school was one of the three best learning experiences of my life. The atmosphere was electric. The academics were people who understood the real world. The civil servants were absolutely top class, bright as buttons, brilliant speakers, knew their stuff backwards and – this is the key thing – were completely honest about the political process and how the wheels of government actually work. I remember in particular two people, an academic and a civil servant, discussing the way new benefits were introduced, telling us what everybody knew but nobody ever confessed to. They got guidelines from the treasury as to how much money they could spend and then crafted the benefit to spend that much money. (Back in those days there was NCIP - Non Contributory Invalidity Pension, and a special one for housewives HNCIP. HNCIP was brought in separately and it tested a woman's ability to do housework as well as ability to work. Yes shot through with sexism etc. They got the calculation wrong however, and the benefit proved to be too successful so the then minister Alf Morris laid amended regulations before Parliament to tighten up who could get it. He laid the regulations before Parliament during the summer recess so Parliament was unable to debate the change. Neat trick. Reminds me of that unsuccessfulbusinessman Lord Freud.)

I lived off that summer school for months. In fact for years. It brought me all sorts of insights at the political level, the social level, the academic level, even the personal level. It was a burst of sunshine in what was then an otherwise quite mundane life. But that was it for 1979. Fast forward five years. By 1984 I had moved to Sussex to continue my career as a social worker. It was East Sussex's turn to nominate a social worker to go to the summer school. East Sussex had as few social workers interested in welfare rights as Cambridgeshire had had. I was asked if I wanted to go. I said yes, of course, but I've already been once, surely somebody else should benefit. “Don't waste my time, you're going”, was the answer.

So I went back to Cambridge with high anticipation. And got one of the biggest disappointments of my life. The college was the same, the participants were the same, the academics were the same. But the civil servants had changed beyond recognition. They had all been got at by Thatcher by that time. Their job was no longer to tell the truth, their job was to defend and justify government policy. And they did it so enthusiastically that nobody dared put a foot wrong. The openness, the intellectual rigour, the brilliant honesty of the 1979 summer school were completely destroyed. There was an atmosphere even of intimidation around. At the 1979 summer school, the participants felt completely able to say provocative things and to ask potentially embarrassing questions. I say “potentially” - none actually was embarrassing because none of the senior civil servants there were afraid to tell the truth. At the 1984 school I heard participants say they weren’t going to say anything out of turn in case it damaged their careers or even possibly them staying in their job. I still got something from that summer school - the academics were just as high calibre. But my chief memory of it is the chill laid over the atmosphere by the attitude of the civil servants.

It was a big lesson to me in two ways. The first is that my business nowadays is, mostly, teaching people. This was the perfect, spine chilling, illustration of how debate and the growth of ideas can be choked at birth by a simple lack of openness, refusal to accept ideas beyond your narrow range of acceptability, and worse active opposition to ideas that don't chime with your own. The second is political. While the civil service still claims, and tries to maintain, some sort of independence from political authority, I have no doubt that the quality of advice that ministers get now is not as good, not as real, not as balanced, and, crucially, nowhere near as innovative as it would be if ministers of successive stripes had not made it clear what they did not want to hear. There is nothing as intellectually stifling as orthodoxy. And in Whitehall nowadays we have a massive orthodoxy in favour of surveillance government and private provision, which serves nobody well apart from politicians and captains of commerce.

As a postscript to the business of creating benefits, I was interested to see Lord Newton of Braintree, who introduced DLA in the 1990s describing the process in exactly the same way. (Look a bit more than halfway down that link.)  “What we did on that occasion was to cobble together a slightly curious construction based on the existing benefits of mobility allowance and attendance allowance using the maximum amount of money I could extract from the Treasury...” I'm sure that they still do it like that today. There's nothing wrong with that process, as long as it is carried out with fairness and with some intellectual rigour. What is wrong with the current process is that it is being carried through with secrecy, lies and deceit, and its purpose is to save money regardless of who suffers, and to create profit for a private company, again regardless of who suffers.

1 comment:

Tisme said...

Brilliant Rob. Some excellent links and background insight there. I totally agree - Thatcher poisoned the system - I just don't know if there is any going forward now... the system will be broken completely if these reforms go through :o(

Tisme Kay