The real cause of “systemic failure”

Terrific column by Jackie Ashley, putting her finger on the nub of the problem of “systemic failure”. Many of the problems that have come to light in the last few months are only incidentally about ministerial failure. They are about the inability of Britain’s civil service to manage complex organisations. Excerpt:

John Reid is absolutely right. Traditionally, ministers have been nervous about criticising officials, and for obvious reasons. It’s like standing on the top of a wobbly ladder abusing the chap holding it at the bottom. Since the days of Richard Crossman and Harold Wilson, Labour ministers have privately complained about civil service competence. All too aware of the leaks and career-ending embarrassments angry officials could visit on them, they have put up with the responsibility for every failure, leaving their servants anonymously blameless.

There desperately needs to be a change in the rules of the game. The days when the civil service was a badly paid, understaffed operation are long gone. The people in charge of major departments are well-paid managers with excellent pensions and job security. Why shouldn’t they bear responsibility when things go wrong? Everybody else does. If a journalist makes a mistake, she doesn’t expect the editor to be sacked. If a shop manager loses billing information, the chief executive doesn’t resign.

The civil service knows how bad the situation really is. A survey of senior officials by SCS found that just 16% thought poor performance was effectively dealt with – a figure that dropped to a terrifying 6% at the Home Office. Meanwhile, a “Have Your Say” survey of all Home Office staff found only 19% thought the Home Office was well managed. Yet when the cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, appeared before the public administration committee recently he enraged MPs who wanted to know who was carrying the can for the foreign criminals fiasco. It was “a complex issue” was his inadequate reply…