Andreas Whittam Smith: Government isn't working. Here's how it can

Blockage at the top, and a miasma of mistrust, are damaging the quality of policy and legislation
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The Independent Online

In the Westminster village, people continue to be surprised at the malfunctions of government. Get used to it. It is going to go on happening. It isn't just a run of bad luck for Gordon Brown. It is how things are. John Reid, when he was Home Secretary, blurted out the truth. He famously said that his department wasn't "fit for purpose". He should have gone further. It is the entire Government that isn't fit for purpose.

It was about three years ago that I first started noticing, as many other people did, that the Government had become incapable of carrying out what it wished to do. Repeated reorganisations of the National Health Service and of the education system had promised new and better ways of going forward, but each time had ended up in culs-de-sac a useless process that in the old Soviet Union after the death of Stalin was called "the treadmill of reforms". I joined a group of former high civil servants, ex-ministers, academics and business types who began to meet regularly to discuss what was going wrong and what would bring about an improvement. We call ourselves, I hope not too pompously, the Better Government Initiative.

The answers to the first question will be obvious to readers. Among the many causes of dysfunction one could pick out is the doubling in the volume of legislation that has led to a decline in its quality. To give an example, a friend who had been appointed chairman of a new regulatory body found that the institution's powers had been so sloppily expressed in the relevant act of Parliament that it took his lawyers a year to decide what they were.

Another source of trouble has been the sort of unofficial presidential system that operated at the heart of government for 10 years but with two presidents. One was the Prime Minister, the other the Chancellor. Now there is one president. But see what three respected, political correspondents have recently written about Mr Brown's methods.

First, my colleague Andrew Grice on 15 December: Ministers "claim they can't get decisions on policies or the timing of announcements because his aides are not authorised to say what "Gordon wants" sometimes because the only person who knows what he wants is ... Gordon." On the same day, Patrick Wintour in the Guardian: "High up in government, there is now serious concern at what looks like a malfunctioning Downing Street. One impeccably Brownite source claims there is an insufficiently clear managerial or sufficiently powerful party structure inside No 10. With Brown trying to do too much, mistakes were being made." And finally Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer on 30 December: "Talking to members of the Cabinet and their aides, I have been staggered by the degree of vehemence with which they despair of what one called 'the sheer dsyfunctionality' of No 10."

Worse than this blockage at the top, however, there persists throughout government a miasma of distrust between Downing Street and government departments, between ministers and established civil servants, and between Whitehall and those responsible for delivering services on the ground. When our group met with senior executives working in the National Health Service, the first thing they described was the atmosphere of fear in which they operated.

The root cause of persistent government dysfunction, I believe, goes deeper still. It is the notion that a new government, once elected, must immediately start campaigning for re-election, even though its term will last for a number of years. This leads to government by gesture and to the requirement that the prime minister of the day must put his or her mark on everything. If there is press criticism, then new measures must be swiftly announced. Don't spare the horses. Rush, rush, rush.

Unfortunately nothing is harder than trying to get an improvement in the processes of government itself. For if the prime minister of the day and his or her colleagues don't want to do it, and the Westminster village remains comfortable in its old ways, how can well-meaning outsiders like the Better Government Initiative make the slightest difference? Well, you hope that the paradox itself will become more glaring. If a growing reputation for sheer incompetence is going to result in Labour being expelled from power for a generation, in the same way that sleaze did for the Conservatives, then reform may begin to seem like a matter of self preservation.

One of the main themes of the 50 proposals that the Better Government Initiative publishes today for improving the quality of decisions and service delivery is to slow things down so that government business can be more carefully done and to use Parliament to accomplish this.

Thus the very first recommendation is that Parliament should secure both more rigorous analysis of policy proposals and retrospective reviews of costs and outcomes. (The full list can be found on the Better Government Initiative web site The 50 proposals cover Parliament and the executive, the conduct of Cabinet business, national security, government departments, training of ministers, the relationship between ministers and officials, and central government's relations with local government. There is not enough room here even to summarise the group's conclusions, so I will concentrate on just the single recommendation described above.

We have put forward a method for securing the desired outcome: "In order to raise the quality of legislation and policy proposals, Parliament should pass a resolution which sets standards for thorough preparation by the executive." This proposed enhancement of parliamentary oversight of government is back to basics. It is of the essence of British constitutional arrangements.

In the resolution that we have drafted we declare that "ministers have a duty to Parliament to ensure that their policy and legislative proposals to Parliament have been thoroughly prepared" and that, "ministers should respond to this resolution in a public document setting out how they intend to ensure that their proposals comply with this resolution" and then we list what elements of thorough preparation Parliamentary Committees would look for before anything could come to the floor of the House."

This resolution may read as unduly technical, but then you can only engage with government and Parliament on their own terms. Yet in the neat clauses of the draft lies a revolution in the way government business has recently been conducted. Nothing less will do if it is to become fit for purpose again.