Adrian Hamilton: Why trust has broken down in Whitehall

The longer Blair lingers, the more vicious the atmosphere will become
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I don't often side with hospital managers, some of the more reviled figures in the current NHS financial crisis. But when Gill Morgan, NHS Confederation chief, said yesterday that the blame for the problems lay partly in the "blame culture", she had a point. The focus on targets, she argued, had led to an atmosphere of "blame" which had managers evading admission of failure rather than acknowledging problems early and stopping the failures happening.

Quite so. The extraordinary degree to which all discussion of public policy now takes place within a framework of accusation and condemnation is quite unprecedented in my experience. Almost nothing can be viewed except that someone has to be held responsible - the judges for soft sentencing, the civil service for letting asylum-seekers free from jail, the Met chief for the Forest Gate intelligence failure - everybody, indeed, except oneself.

Some of this may be due to the febrile political atmosphere of our time. There is a fin de regime atmosphere pervading this Government, a vacuum into which politicians and the press are piling, ministers to protect their reputations, their opponents to type them as failures. The longer Blair lingers, the more vicious the atmosphere will become.

But the present debate goes beyond the normal confines of adversarial politics or the fractious embrace in which politicians and the press are increasingly locked. There is an anger and frustration about it that is becoming unhealthy in its generalised condemnation of whole groups. It's no longer good enough to say that "government' is not good at this, or officials at that. It has to be expressed that half need to be fired, that whole classes must be abolished.

Aside from the point that this is no way to encourage improved performance, it is also no way to understand what causes "systemic failure". Of course there must be individual responsibility for failure as success. Any organisation has to run on that basis, politics all the more so. The doctrine of ministerial responsibility is fundamental to the way our system works, and there is something peculiarly whingeing about ministers who complain of the venom of their attackers just as there is something tawdry about the increasing willingness of ministers to blame their officials.

There is, however, a serious underlying problem building up between politicians and the civil service. Trust is quite simply breaking down. It's not a problem primarily of competence or lines of command, as most of the criticisms would have it. Nor can it be easily solved by new divisions of responsibility, as the IPPR is now suggesting, with a neat demarcation line between policy formulation, for which the minister takes responsibility, and administrative action, for which the civil servant carries the can.

But that is just dealing with symptoms. The real problem is that we have lost our sense of what the civil service - or judges, managers and other groups - are actually there for. A couple of years ago, an official at Number 10 trying to explain to me how effective Tony Blair was as a Prime Minister used as his example the way in which the PM had intervened to take command and keep pushing on the issue of reducing the queues of asylum-seekers, then the subject of endless headlines in the populist press.

The other side of the coin was revealed by Sir John Gieve, then permanent secretary at the Home Office, who told a Commons Committee this week investigating the failure to deport foreign prisoners that, so taken up was the department with the Prime Minister's priority that it simply never asked any questions about other issues.

That says something about the way Number 10 in this Government has undermined departmental initiative, a whole subject in itself, but it also tells us the way the civil service works. After being accused for years of being too independent, the last couple of decades has seen it become more and more political in the sense of being, in the upper reaches, primarily attuned to responding to ministerial concerns and legislative initiatives. Actual administration has been something being demanned and farmed out to private companies.

The huge expansion in numbers of the last five years, the increase in burden of direct administration, has caught the service completely unprepared. Far from being too independent, it is too political and thus exaggerates rather than counterbalances the weaknesses of its political masters. Far from being galvanised by targets and disciplines, these have become excuses for evading the wider role of good government and effective management.

Ministers should listen to Gill Morgan - that is, if they can get beyond denying there is a crisis in the NHS and blaming any problems on the managers.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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