Two recent books have brought the subject back into focus. Both consider the role of politicians as well as mandarins. Both are on my reading list on the strength of the experience of the authors and the reviews. Here is a taster based on the reviews. I'll write again when I've read the books.
The first book is 'Conundrum: Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong and What We Can Do About it" by Richard Bacon MP and Christopher Hope. It's a good team: Bacon is the longest serving member of the Public Accounts Committee and Hope is senior political correspondent at the Daily Telegraph.
The Telegraph's reviewer, Dan Hodges, wrote:
"Conundrum pitches itself as an examination of the failures of government, but it is primarily about the failures of government procurement....One of the most interesting areas they cover is the relationship between civil servants and the politicians who, nominally, oversee them. In my experience, the majority of career civil servants regard politicians as meddling dilettantes, while politicians regard most civil servants as obstructive bureaucrats. It’s pleasing to find Hope and Bacon confirming that view"The second book is 'The Blunders of our Governments' by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. The authors are eminent professorial political scientists of an age to have allowed each of them many decades observing the machinery of government.
According to the The Financial Times review by Philip Stephens, the book shatters the delusion of UK public administrators that British government is of 'Rolls Royce' quality. Rather, through a "sometimes grimly entertaining" catalogue of public policy disasters over the past several decades, the authors show that Britain's public administration is characterised by "predictable and predicted blunders".
Not content with that, the authors explain that blunders are not the same as mistakes. "Mistakes count as blunders when they are stupid and careless – driven by some combination of hubris, laziness, wilful ignorance or sheer incompetence."
Both books appear to assert not only the incompetence of senior civil servants but also of the their political masters of all colours and persuasions. It is no consolation that private sector failures display similar weaknesses, as was demonstrated by 'Roads to Ruin', the Cass Business School report for Airmic.
Is it too much to expect that the Civil Servants' leaders address weaknesses such as these? Sadly, yes. Cognitive biases make it hard for us all to see our own shortcomings, and civil servants and politicians are as human as you and I. Overcoming this weaknesses requires a new attitude.
Until mandarins appreciate that they 'may' - the above authors would say 'do' - lie at the root cause of unacceptable behavioural and organisational risks, they will not allow investigation of their own weaknesses. The signs are that mandarins are still in denial. And it is far too dangerous for their subordinates to enlighten them of their weaknesses. That is why suggestions that the Treasury's Orange Book on risk management needs revision to include behavoural and organisational risks have been ignored.
Once they have achieved acceptance that they may be part of the problem, mandarins will need a new tool. In 'Deconstructing failure - Insights for boards', a report by Reputablity, we proposed a new tool to deal with the parallel weakness in company boards: the Board Vulnerability Evaluation. Adapted to the Civil Service departmental leadership teams, this would help civil service leaders and their political masters to:
- identify sources of risk within and outside the leadership that may impair leadership effectiveness, including risks from inadequate information flows to and from the leadership;
- analyse the potential consequences of these risks and weaknesses individually, in combination and in combination with other risks;
- prioritise action to mitigate these risks;
- set risk appetite, and
- gain insights as to the extent to which behavioural and organisational risks elsewhere in the organisation need investigation.