Andreas Whittam Smith: It's not just the borders agency that is unfit for purpose

Our politicians don't lack brainpower or ability. But what they do lack are knowledge and training

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The British Government can no longer make a success of large and complex tasks. I can think of four examples, all of them among the central activities of government. Defence of the realm, control of our borders, care of old people in hospital, and collection of taxes.

Equip our armed forces expeditiously and effectively? No. A recent study written by the new head of defence procurement, Bernard Gray, revealed that, on average, equipment is delivered five years later than planned and costs 40 per cent more than expected.

Keep our borders safe? No. As we learnt this week, rigorous controls at passport desks are relaxed without it being clear who gave the order. And the number of asylum and immigration cases lost by the UK Border Agency tripled from 40,500 in March to 124,000 in September.

Treat people well in hospital? No. Random inspections of 100 hospitals carried out between March and June showed that around half of them gave inspection teams cause for concern. Twenty hospitals were not delivering care for old people that met the standards the law says people should expect.

Collect the taxes that are due? No. Nearly six million people in the UK have unwittingly paid the wrong amount of tax in the past two years. About 1.4 million people underpaid via the Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system but some 4.3 million people will get a rebate because they have paid too much.

Before considering what are the root causes of this chaos, look at what is before our eyes. The statement to the House of Commons by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was appalling not so much for what it revealed, but for the manner in which she dumped blame, inaccurately as it is claimed, on Brodie Clark, the head of the UK Border Force. Senior public servants have thus been reminded that when their political masters are under pressure, they will always drop them in the mire. As a result, out goes initiative, in comes avoidance of blame, and down goes performance.

Now let us turn our attention to one of the most dysfunctional activities of government, defence procurement. The author of the report I quote above was very clear about root causes. Take one of these: "The Armed Forces, competing for scarce funding, quite naturally seek to secure the largest share of resources for their own needs, and have a systematic incentive to underestimate the likely cost of equipment. Unfortunately the current system is not able to flush out at an early stage the real costs of this equipment." (My italics). I charitably assume all sorts of techniques have been tried, such as making individual services indicate what cutbacks they would make if it proved that they had underestimated costs and holding them to it. Yet the problem remains. Why is this?

You don't have to scratch your head for very long. The underlying explanation is the failure of successive defence ministers to act decisively. It is not as if the problems are of mind-blowing complexity or difficulty. Any reasonably competent manager could solve them.

The tragedy is that Dr Liam Fox, who was recently forced to resign as Secretary of State, may have been on his way to doing precisely that. But not his predecessors. Not Bob Ainsworth, who was in office for less than two years; not John Hutton, who had nine months in charge; not Des Browne, who lasted two and a half years, nor John Reid, at the helm for exactly one year. Given that a new Secretary of State requires at least a year to master his or her brief, this rapid turnover is itself part of the problem.

Now let us turn to the three other major tasks. They each involve the delivery of services – to the returning traveller or visitor at our ports, to old people in hospital, to individual taxpayers. A clue to what is wrong can be found in the Treasury Select Committee report on HM Revenue & Customs published in the summer. In a section headed "Organisational Culture", the Committee found a "command and control" approach to management. "Middle managers are discouraged from reporting back to the top 'bad news' or news that projects and initiatives are becoming unmanageable or are going awry. Such reports are regarded as 'negativity' and will damn career progress... thus at the top senior managers are largely unaware of the difficulties, problems, and obstacles that the bulk of the organisation faces."

This is authentic stuff. For when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, she introduced a system of managing the delivery of public services that was similar to manufacturing cars – tasks were broken up into their component parts, work was measured and timed and individual workers did one thing, and one thing only. This was developed and refined by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Tony Blair even created a delivery unit at 10 Downing Street run by Michael Barber. But this approach has not worked because, unlike vehicles on the production line, human beings don't fit into tidy categories that can be processed at speed. At the same time, public-sector managers learn to "game" the system to protect their backs. The delivery of public services requires techniques and procedures that are more sophisticated and more nuanced than those found in a factory. These systems exist, but there are as yet only a few examples in the public services.

When you find a large and complex task that is being mishandled, you are entitled to conclude that the people in charge are either not sufficiently intelligent, or not knowledgeable enough or that they lack training – or, as is usually the case, some combination of all three. As far as Government ministers go, we can rule out lack of ability as a cause. There is ample brainpower around the Cabinet table. We are left with lack of knowledge (or just know-how) and lack of training.

This in turn directs us to the quality of members of Parliament, the sole source of ministerial appointments. Few MPs have any experience of handling large and complex tasks, whether, say, running a big school, or a major charity, or a business. They have often only been professional politicians. And politics remains one of the few walks of life where training is never considered. How arrogant is that?

Until Parliament attracts more people who have done something worthwhile outside politics, and until it is admitted that even MPs require training in government, dysfunction will swell and grow. Politicians are always trying to reform us. I really would like them first to improve themselves.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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