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Impermanent Secretary

The Labour Party have decided that the biggest barrier to the successful delivery of their political agenda are the Permanent Secretaries who run government departments. This is sometimes known as the “Grand Vizier” theory of organisational inertia.

I worked for many different Perm Secs in my time and they were as mixed a bag as a largely identical group of almost entirely middle class white men could be. They were by and large pleasant, diligent, and committed to the delivery of their Minister’s policy objectives. In the caste system of the Civil Service, they are Courtiers or Priests – a translation layer between the wishes of the Minister/Deity and the lay people charged with implementing those wishes.

And like all intermediaries they are blamed from both sides.

It is not a job I would ever wish on anyone. It is definitely not a job for those of us who like owning the delivery of concrete outcomes. And it is most definitely not a job for those of us who do not conform to the monoculture of the UK Senior Civil Service.

Certain parts of Labour Left folk memory obsess over the experiences of Tony Benn and Michael Meacher in government where, as folklore would have it, the innocent workers of the Civil Service were deceived by the wicked Grand Viziers, er Perm Secs, into stopping the brave visionary Ministers from delivering the Golden Age.

What actually stopped them was in fact the Prime Minister of the day who did not want Ministers with “funny ideas” going rogue.

There is a wonderful simplicity in imagining “If only…”.

If only the wicked Grand Viziers were not there then the Golden Age would be ours!

It is the same world of magical thinking which comes up with “If only we ran government like a business” or “What we need is a Government of All Talents”. Both of which profoundly misunderstand the purpose of government and lead only to misery.

The fundamental problem for any incoming administration is not a conspiracy of wicked Grand Viziers. It is the brute force of reality.

Effective government is about reality. It is about understanding that government is the final resort for tackling wicked problems which have no easy solutions, where any fix will cause pain to your own political supporters, and where people with the experience and skills needed are very few and far between.

As Climate Change bites deeper, as the unchecked excesses of rentier capitalism hollow out more of our society, as automation spreads up the value chain, as nationalism rears its ugly head once more the need for governments to take hard choices and base delivery on reality becomes all the more critical.

The problem we have is that reality is hard, much easier to seek refuge in romantic dreams like the madness of Brexit than to confront facts such as fishing no longer being a sustainable industry or that the UK’s economy has been in continual decline since 1945.

Socialists are above all realists. We have no time for the romantic, impossible visions of either communism or capitalism. We know where those visions lead.

Labour should focus on delivery first, structures second.

Yes, the Senior Civil Service has severe monocultural issues.

Yes, most people who have ever managed to successfully deliver a major programme in the Civil Service then leave as they never want to go through the deeply painful experience ever again.

There are lots of very deep and fundamental issues that need fixing but replacing the Perm Secs with inexperienced outsiders will fix none of them and merely cause further problems.

Civil Service reform is a rabbit hole which you can disappear down and never emerge from, implementing the Fulton Report from 1968 (!) would be a good first step.

Let’s start instead by facing reality, delivering outcomes and making a difference. That will drive far more radical change in the end.

2 replies on “Impermanent Secretary”

Mark, you write that “the UK’s economy has been in continual decline since 1945.” Can you explain what you mean here? It goes without saying that GDP per capita has increased substantially in that time.

Take a look at David Edgerton’s “The Rise and Fall of the British Nation” which provides a sobering history of how successive governments and leaders of industry failed.

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