8 April 2023
Politics and Economics
Earlier this year I resolved that the majority of my blogs should be positive because there are so many difficulties in the UK and indeed the rest of the world that it's too easy to be negative. However, for this blog I'm going to break that rule but only in the sense of trying to understand some of the problems we face particularly in the UK and what might the solution be.
Everything seems to be broken. The economy is broken; government finances are broken; the National Health Service is broken; the criminal justice system is broken; police forces particularly the Metropolitan Police are broken; the education system is largely broken; the attempts to restrict illegal migration are clearly broken which means that our voting system is broken. The climate is broken; Many of our attempts to manage agriculture in a sustainable way are broken. The list is no doubt endless.
I suspect the majority of people if they were to agree with this assessment would blame the government. That seems to be the standard response because it seems to be the responsibility of the government to manage these things better and to cure the problems and prevent them recurring. Some people might also have a go at the media for stirring things up drawing attention to the problems rather than looking for positive stories. I covered this in my recent blog on Factfulness.
But I have a different view. I am not defending the elected government when I say this and indeed I think their record has been extremely mixed. We have had five conservative prime ministers in the 13 years since 2010. None of them has been able to fix any of these major problems and may have made some of them worse. But I also think that the Civil Service has a great deal of the responsibility for what goes wrong. Then why doesn’t it put it right? They are the permanent civil service and should know how things work and what needs to be done. I have come across numerous examples recently of complaints about them, the most recent being the resignation of a nutrition expert because of the failures to implement issues to address the obesity crisis. When I was born in 1950 1% of the population was considered to be obese. It is now 28% with 60% overall being overweight and that is reckoned to reach 80% in the next few years. That will place an intolerable burden on an already failing National Health Service and may indeed put the country into long term depression.
I have some experience on a personal level of having to interact with the public sector and with civil service officials. In one particular job I did for a number of years as chairman of an agency I had interaction with two different departments. In one of these the experience was actually very good as the officials with whom I was interacting had been in their jobs for some considerable time, had great knowledge of the sector with good contacts. They regularly attended trade shows and other events where they could learn from the industrial sector about what the issues were. Their overall impact on this particular sector was very favourable. They were open to new ideas but also understood the best way to get those accepted by their political leadership.
However my experience with the other department was absolutely the opposite of this. None of the people that I dealt with at any level had much experience if any of the sector. Indeed during my time there the most senior person was transferred to a completely different sector to take charge of it but she had no previous experience of it whatsoever. That sector has been in a mess ever since. Their skill seemed to be how to develop policy in such a way that it would be accepted by their leadership and by the relevant minister rather than having a skill in knowing what to do to really make a difference and how to make that happen.
However, few civil servants get fired. Failing politicians have to answer to the electorate and many lose their jobs either as ministers or even as MPs. But then civil servants have jobs for life and very generous pensions that are paid by the tax payer, not derived from investments out of their own income. In the private sector in which I spent most of my career I was always in competition with other companies. If we failed we might have to close and indeed I have had to close some businesses and make people redundant. Nothing like that happens in the public sector. The Treasury may have screwed up the economy but they just carry on. The Home Office may have screwed up the police forces but they just carry on. The Justice Department may have screwed up the courts but they just carry on. Again the list is endless.
If we can’t create competitive market conditions for public services, (which of course we can and they do in some other countries) we could at least bring in accountability. If you screw up you lose your job or at least get demoted or don’t get an automatic pay rise that’s the same for everyone, the good and the hopeless.
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