Philip Hensher: It's tough to sack a civil servant (I should know)

 

Share
Related Topics

The number of civil servants has, interestingly, dropped very substantially under the Coalition. Whether as a result of redefinition or of stripping down, the numbers have fallen since the Brownite high point, from over half a million to a mere 434,000.

The number is said to be the lowest since the Second World War. That sounds less triumphant than the Government perhaps intended – I don't know that it should be necessary to run a centralised wartime economy with the same numbers as a largely privatised economy in the 21st century.

Still, there are ideas floating around the radical corners of Government that the civil service might be reduced still further. It's been said that Steve Hilton, the director of strategy who is about to leave to take up a post at an American university, has told the Prime Minister that the civil service could be a tenth of its current size. A Downing Street source, reporting back on a bizarre exercise by which Somerset House was "measured up" to find out working space, found that the 19th century managed to run an empire with no more than 4,000 London civil servants – "which rather puts today's staffing into perspective".

How could the civil service be reduced to this ideally efficient number? Well, the Government has had the glorious idea of identifying "under-performing civil servants" and sacking them. The civil service, far from providing a home for the cautious and inefficient, is going to home in on such people and chuck them out into a cold, hard world.

I wish them well in this ambitious undertaking. But, frankly, I don't think listing all Government employees in order of efficiency and then sacking the worst 20 per cent is a plan at all likely to work. I say this as somebody who was, in fact, sacked from the public service in 1996. I was undoubtedly one of the most useless clerks ever employed by the House of Commons – I never did any work at all, devoting most of my time to phoning up friends, writing a couple of novels of my own, and reviewing the novels of others. I should never in a million years have been employed by them.

Unfortunately, uselessness on its own didn't qualify one to be sacked, I discovered – there were other clerks almost as idle and incompetent as I was who had been there for years and were going to stay there until retirement. I was eventually sacked, though not for being in the lowest-achieving 20 per cent; I had to go to the boring length of writing a scandalous novel and giving an obscenely frank interview about it to a gay magazine before the House of Commons felt the necessity of dismissing me.

Subsequent research – I hope carried out by another idle fellow, assigned to encourage him into a more productive attitude – discovered that the last sacking of a clerk from the House of Commons had taken place in 1835 or thereabouts. As I say, I wish Mr Cameron well in this endeavour.

The point at which the Government's brave new endeavour might fall down is that the whole attempt to quantify the excellence of individual civil servants seems just as likely to increase the number of officials as decrease it. How easy to appoint yet more people, clipboard in hand, to have lovely discussions about efficiency and outputs and ratings! How incredibly difficult to get rid of anyone just because they are totally hopeless at their job!

Once, in Bangladesh, I peered into a chemist's shop, roughly five feet wide and 16 feet deep, and counted 11 members of staff, entirely without any kind of occupation. Now, I don't say the British civil service is like that, but who, really, could determine how many people it needs to run the country? No doubt the country could be run, after a fashion, with 30,000 highly efficient public servants, or with 10 million totally idle ones. Stuff gets done, somehow, whether under the eyes of men with clipboards or not.

But is he ready for the wind of change?

Prince Charles's wonderful turn reading the weather on Scottish television fills one with envy – we've probably never really wanted to be a member of the Royal Family and spend our days asking dull questions of over-excited strangers. But surely everyone has longed to stand in front of a blue screen and wave their arms to conjure up a cold front approaching Kidderminster. Of course, come the revolution, they are all going to have to abandon their traditional trade of asking town councillors' wives if they have come far, in favour of media appearances.

The Duchess of Cornwall surely deserves her own book programme on BBC Radio 4. When Prince Harry is released from restraint, Bear Grylls perhaps ought to worry for his career eating Amazonian worms on screen. And the Queen? Well, after her astute questioning of the bewildered academics of LSE about why nobody saw the collapse coming, she would surely make a formidable interviewer on the Today programme. The Royals, understandably, never much enjoy being the unreacting target of media interest. How they must long to take charge, and start asking penetrating questions of the unsuspecting masses.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own