SOMETIMES, fiction is the best guide to reality. I have been rewatching Sir Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s brilliant Yes, Minister, one of Britain’s best-ever and much-loved sitcoms. It depicts the warped relationship between a wannabe reforming politician and his civil servants, who spend all their time thwarting him and gradually turn him into a pathetic creature of the establishment. This is truly great television with a revolutionary edge.
Yet what is astonishing is that while the sitcom – and its successor Yes, Prime Minister – ran between 1980 and 1988, the themes, phrases and issues remain incredibly contemporary. The episode on education reform is unbelievably relevant. History is repeating itself; the coalition has learnt nothing from the failures of previous governments. But it is not all as it was in the 1980s. The series’ fictional permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, was a brilliant man. The fact that Appleby spent all of his time sabotaging reform, openness and his minister Jim Hacker’s political goals – Appleby is the real boss, with Hacker tolerated as a passing nuisance – didn’t detract from his competence. The problem was one of incentives – bureaucratic empire building was the primary objective, not improving the country – not ability.
While the incentive mismatch remains a lethal issue today, an added tragedy is that the quality of the civil service has also deteriorated, as testified by the fact that so much government legislation is riddled with errors, internal inconsistencies and other problems. The bureaucracy has lost much of its competence. The “Rolls-Royce” (yet deeply flawed) civil service of yore no longer exists. The situation is even worse in quangos; the biggest problem is a lack of managerial ability among senior people. Few of those in positions of power have real, private sector operational knowledge.
Many intelligent, altruistic and principled people work for the state. But the average competence of civil servants is in decline. Our antiquated and over-centralised system of administration remains outstanding only in one respect: it is not corrupt. But other than that, it now resembles a cross between Yes, Minister and the Thick of It, a modern-day, coarser and horribly plausible satire developed by Armando Iannucci, where the political-spin-doctor-civil service establishment is hilariously depicted as idiotic, gutless, incompetent and power-hungry.
One problem is that so much power has been transferred to the European Union. The last thing clever graduates want to spend their time doing is to become implementers of somebody else’s legislation. Another force halting reform is that government decisions are now all constantly subject to litigation and judicial review. Civil servants routinely take lawyers into meetings with ministers; their first reaction to any proposed change is that it is illegal. Often, this has to do with European legislation or human rights. There is also a fresh dimension: the Labour-imposed requirement to perform Equality Impact Assessments on all policies, with any deemed to discriminate against a “disadvantaged” group automatically open to legal action. These EIAs will shortly become even more powerful. They are a complete disaster and have given officials as well as pressure groups carte blanche to kill off all change – including the entirety of the austerity programme. Unless the coalition acts fast, it will be soon be overwhelmed.
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