Here’s a recording of a webinar I did on this topic for the Whitehall in Industry Group on April 1st
Here’s a recording of a webinar I did on this topic for the Whitehall in Industry Group on April 1st
By Colin Talbot
In democratic government the general rule is supposed to be simple: advisers advise, ministers decide, civil servants do.
In the UK system, that emerged fully at the beginning of the 20th century, the civil service were both the advisers and the doers.
Top civil servants told ministers what options there were to achieve what ministers wanted. Ministers chose, and the civil service went off and “made it so”.
Lots of people challenged this cosy and rather naïve view, not least the ever popular ‘Yes Minister’ series. In reality there have always grey areas on the boundary between elected politicians and permanent civil servants. Continue reading
Stefan Czerniawski, who goes under the blog name “Public Strategist”, has written a rather ill-informed and intemperate attack on a report we have just published based purely on the use of the term “Sir Humphrey” in the title.
Firstly, Stefan should issue a public apology for his completely sexist ignoring of the fact that the report in question was co-authored by Dr. Carole Talbot and myself. Carole apparently doesn’t exist as far as Stephan is concerned. Which suggests he either didn’t read the report before launching his diatribe or, worse, did and chose to ignore my co-author.
Second, his comments about using “Sir Humphrey” in the title is a stretch, to put it mildly.
We used the term “Sir Humphrey” (“Sir Humphrey and the Professors – What Does Whitehall Want From Academics?”) purely as short-hand, a signal that this was about the Senior Civil Service. In our experience far more people recognize the term “Sir Humphrey” to refer to senior members of the Whitehall establishment than have seen “Yes Minister”. It no greater portend than that, which is clear to anyone who actually reads the report properly.
I am tempted to suggest that Mr Czerniawski is another poor soul who has fallen amongst post-modernist deconstructionists. He is reading far too much into a single phrase.
“Sir Humphrey”, rather like “Mandarins” before it, has simply become a popular short-hand for the senior denizens of Whitehall, which is who our survey was about. (Incidentally, Stefan, a number of Grade 1 (Permanent Secretary level) civil servants did complete our survey).
Maybe we should apologise for trying too hard to make our research “impactful”, as the current fashion has it. But I must say it’s a novel sensation to be criticized, as an academic, for trying to be too populist (except by other academics that is).
What would be interesting to know is what Stefan thinks about our actual report, rather than his long-winded critique of a single phrase that is used just once – in the title.
Having said all that there is a serious debate to be had about to what degree the senior civil service has actually changed in the past 30 years. Stefan seems to think a lot: “Sir Humphrey was a permanent secretary thirty years ago. I think we can take it that he retired long since. We should let him go.”
Personally I would beg to differ, and have written rather a lot over the years showing in what respects the institutional configurations of Whitehall and its central actors have not fundamentally changed, despite some superficial modifications. They never were “Sir Humphrey” in any literal sense, but “Yes Minister” did capture some truths about how Whitehall worked and still, in large measure, does. But that’s another debate.
So how about an apology to Carole, and a blog about our actual report, Stefan?
I was involved in the struggle against apartheid from 1970 onwards. Whilst I was involved in all sorts of campaigns in the 70s and early 80s, it was the 1988 70th Birthday Concert for Mandela that lifted to campaign to new heights. And central to this new phase was music – joyous, liberatory, defiant, music. Below is my own, completely idiosyncratic, ‘top ten’ bits of music that – for me – symbolise the striggel against one of the world’s most evil regimes – apartheid South Africa
Nelson Mandela – Specials – the song that more than any other captured the spirit of the campaign. (join the campaign to make this the Christmas number one for 2013)
Mandela Day – Simple Minds
Mandela (live) – Hugh Masakela
Mandela – Salif Keita
Mandela – Santana
Biko – Peter Gabriel – the song that became an anthem for a new generation of anti-apartheid activists in the late 80s.
Impi – Johnny Clegg – once a song buy a despised progressive, now the unofficial anthem of the Springboks. The world turns.
Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City – Steven van Zant
You have placed a chill on my heart – Annie Lennox – a she sang it at the Birthday concert in 1988, dedicated to Madiba – chilling indeed.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – nuff said.
Finally, I’d add a tribute to George Michael. he performed a magical set of three numbers by black artists in 1988. As he came off stage a somewhat naive TV reporter asked him “was there any significance to you choosing to cover songs from three bald artists?” To which George replied: “what do you think?”
Dear friends, colleagues and readers,
Whitehall Watch has gone – but just to a better place. It has now joined what will be a suite of blogs under the umbrella of Manchester Policy Blogs.
If you have come here (by mistake) then please just click this www.manchester.ac.uk/whitehallwatch and it’ll take you to the new home of Whitehall Watch.
After nearly four years and over 180,000 hits I have to say it’s been a wrench “letting go”. It has been quite a journey, with more than a few unexpected twists and turns. Above all WW has had far greater impact than I ever thought possible. And reach – it’s extraordinary that its been read in over 140 countries. But, onwards and upwards… so join me and us at our new home.
This is an appeal for a bit of research help from Whitehall Watch’s highly knowledgeable readership…..
There is a widespread belief – often repeated in serious academic texts – that any defeat on ‘budget’ or ‘money’ motions in the House of Commons is tantamount to a vote of no confidence. I’m grateful to Prof Philip Cowley for pointing out this isn’t actually true in practice – there have been about 20 cases, at least, of defeats since 1918 (see table below) none of which was treated as a vote of confidence. Continue reading
By Colin Talbot, University of Manchester
Britain is still a majority social-democratic country. That is, politically, the most significant finding of the latest British Social Attitudes survey published this week. Most people want a country which “gets and spends” about what we do now, or even more, rather than less. The BSA figures seem to contradict the often heard assertion that the British people want Scandinavian levels of public services for American levels of taxes. Continue reading
Today’s NAO Report on Universal Credit implementation is one of the hardest hitting critiques in living memory from a usually restrained institution. I would say “I hate to say I told you so”, but I don’t ‘hate to say it” and I did, three years ago. But first the NAO’s verdict:
“The National Audit Office has concluded that the Department for Work and Pensions has not achieved value for money in its early implementation of Universal Credit. …
Today’s report concludes that the Department was overly ambitious in both the timetable and scope of the programme. The Department took risks to try to meet the short timescale and used a new project management approach which it had never before used on a programme of this size and complexity. It was unable to explain how it originally decided on its ambitious plans or evaluated their feasibility.”
Devastating stuff, but not unexpected, as there’s been a steady trickle of stories about UC’s problems.
In a post on my own Whitehall Watch and on the ‘Public Finance’ blogsite, in November 2010, I spelt out why the implementation of Universal Credit was likely to be a disaster. I think the broad thrust of what I said then still holds true today.
I have heard some blame being attached to Iain Duncan Smith – the funniest quip I’ve heard is “what do you expect when you send a Lieutenant to do a Generals job?” (a reference to IDS’s undistinguished military service, which he’s always made a lot of). He has certainly suffered from a large dose of hubris about what it is possible to do and on what timescales. Continue reading
Post written by Colin Talbot for The Conversation.
The idea that competition is better than monopoly provision in public services is now established wisdom among the British political elite. Since the advent of something commonly called “New Public Management” in the early 1980s, privately managed organisations have been taken to be more efficient and innovative than public ones.
But is there, to coin a phrase, a third way? Competition without private interest companies? The belief that the private sector is inherently good has meant Continue reading
Having been established by the government to take the politics out of fiscal and economic forecasting, the independence of the Office for Budget Responsibility is fundamental to its credibility and legitimacy. The appointment of Robert Chote as Chair in 2010 appears to have enhanced the OBR’s standing in this regard, but has not completely swept away all concerns about the OBR’s relationship to government. On the day the OBR releases its latest analysis of the UK’s public finances, Craig Berry and Richard Berry ask whether the agency has yet been able to break free from the political grasp of the Treasury.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) was established to help ensure the government’s fiscal and economic forecasts are credible and transparent. The key innovation designed to achieve this objective was that the OBR would be independent of the Treasury, and therefore outside direct ministerial control. When Robert Chote was appointed as the second Chair of the OBR in 2010 – an appointment approved by Parliament – it appeared to confirm that the agency would be genuinely independent. Indeed, there is no reason to doubt the impartiality of the OBR’s analysis. The idea that the OBR acts with complete autonomy, however, is highly questionable – it remains a very small organisation, integrated almost seamlessly with the Treasury apparatus. Continue reading