Andreas Whittam Smith: How to make government work again

Labour produced a new offence for every day ministers have been in office
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The Independent Online

An unexamined assumption is a dangerous thing. There is one of these lurking beneath the surface of the general election campaign: the belief that governments can actually deliver on their manifesto promises. For the evidence accumulates, almost on a daily basis, that they cannot do so. Indeed I am finding it hard to think of any organisation that is as badly managed and inefficient as central government.

I always thought, for instance, that Britain was a country where taxes are collected more or less in full. We are surely not like Italy or Greece, half ruined by tax avoidance and evasion. But consider a recent report into Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC). There we learn that "£11.2bn of the £27.7bn of tax debt at the end of March 2009 is unlikely to be collected". Then comes a dismaying comment: "The Department has deferred its plan to invest in a new debt management system." Collecting taxes isn't going to improve any time soon.

Could this be connected with the HMRC's inability to perform even the simplest tasks, such as answering the telephone? Another enquiry found that in its Customer Contact Directorate only 57 per cent of 103 million call attempts made last year were answered. That means that a staggering total of 44 million calls to HMRC rang and rang until the exasperated caller put down the phone.

I select at random from recent news items. If you are going to be involved in a major traffic accident and have to be rushed into hospital, a report published last week suggested that you would fare much better in the US. It noted: "Since 1988, a number of studies have identified deficiencies in the care provided to severely injured patients in England. There has, however, been little progress in addressing these deficiencies and recent research has identified a 20 per cent higher in-hospital mortality rate for trauma patients in England compared to the US. In 2008, Lord Darzi's review reported that there were "compelling arguments for saving lives by creating specialised centres for major trauma" and strategic health authorities were asked to develop plans. However, the report added, "no timescales were set for the completion of this process". So we may well go another 22 years without improvement.

There have been other reports recently on the deterioration in the health of under five-year-olds in spite of a £10bn investment, on the severe lack of helicopters in Afghanistan, and confirmation that in 2010 the asylum and immigration operations of the Home Office remain every bit as "unfit for purpose" as a previous home secretary, John Reid, had described them in 2006. They are still losing files by the tens of thousands.

Appalled by this situation, I promoted the idea some time ago that former senior civil servants should use their experience to analyse what had gone wrong and propose reforms. This grouping became the "Better Government Initiative" led by Sir Christopher Foster. Last month it published a well received report entitled Good Government: Reforming Parliament and the Executive. It made 39 recommendations.

Now I have decided to enlist the power of the internet. I want to discover what are the root causes of the substantial deterioration in the quality of government. To this end I am posting an 8,000-word work-in-progress on a website I have created called Broken Government (see below). I call my piece "a work in progress" because I am sure there is much more to be written than I can do and that some at least of my analysis will need correction. I invite comments, contributions and corrections: ( Anecdotes that tell of interaction with government or of the experience of working for the state would be useful, too.

I start by looking at the quality of the people in charge, government ministers. In the British system, where ministers are exclusively selected from among members of parliament, that is from a restricted pool of talent, only rarely will the secretaries of state in charge of departments have the skills required for running their complex organisations. Until the 1960s, however, the deficiencies of ministers were counter-balanced by the strength of the Civil Service. But from that time onwards politicians became increasingly dissatisfied with the "old" relationship – later caricatured in the very amusing Yes, Minister series on television – and began to make changes. Mrs Thatcher narrowed the scope within which civil servants could challenge ministers, but they were still seen as partners. Mr Blair treated them as subordinates and excluded them from central policy making unless ready to be politicised. Yet 40 years on, despite numerous experiments, no better system has been found.

Having weakened the machinery of government, successive administrations then proceeded to subject it to enormous strains. Departments have been broken up and merged together in new groupings. And then unmerged again. Ministers rarely stay in post for long. Tony Blair carried out 10 major reshuffles during his 10 years in office.

Moreover there are two forces that strongly influence the behaviour of ministers as a group. They are terrified of losing the next election because they believe that when a governing party falls from power, it will do so for more than one parliament. So they embrace non-stop campaigning from one election to the next.

But here a second pressure beats upon ministers – the sheer speed of the news cycle. News items with pictures and words tumble after each other in a non-stop, 24/7 chain reaction. Confronted with this, ministers believe that if they fail to respond instantaneously, they will be seen as incompetent or as hiding something.

The consequence is that they try to make the entire government machine move at the same lightening speed as the news cycle. That is why, for example, the Labour Government has felt the need to create more than 4,200 new criminal offences since it came to power in 1997. This is a rate of approximately one new criminal offence for every day ministers have been in office.

But if the media is the racehorse, the Government is the carthorse. They cannot move in tandem. The futile attempt to harness the two, with ministers, special advisers and civil servants falling over their feet in a dreadful rush, is perhaps the key reason for the incompetence and impotence of government.