UK: Political managers - Change the people, not the system - When Whitehall fails to deliver the policy ...

UK: Political managers - Change the people, not the system - When Whitehall fails to deliver the policy ... - Political managers - Change the people, not the system - When Whitehall fails to deliver the policy desired, the prime minister would do well to

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Political managers - Change the people, not the system - When Whitehall fails to deliver the policy desired, the prime minister would do well to examine the basic management tool of well-judged delegation.

I have observed with some interest the prime minister's growing frustration with the way the system works - or doesn't work. The Government has now been in power for well over half its practical life and political commentators are turning their attention from the breathless phrases of the pre-election and honeymoon phases to the more earthy facts of life that constitute historical record.

At the heart of the prime minister's dilemma is the problem of management.

In the infinitely complex crossplay that is the public sector, how does one turn widely acceptable ambitions into achievements? There is no answer to this question that does not confront one of the central challenges of management. 'Show me the problem, show me the person' has always been at the heart of my philosophy of management. Growing through the experiences of the tiniest small business to the management of the largest Government departments, as I did, taught me the vital priority of delegation. The bigger the organisation, the greater the need to delegate, and the more vital the judgment about to whom to delegate which task.

There is, in most prime ministers, an instinct to centralise more and more power upon themselves as they feel that the system is letting them down. Well, it is not the system that is failing. The failure is the Government's lack of understanding of how to use the system and, crucially important, to provide ministers capable of driving it.

Take education, for example. Few would dispute that to raise its standards is a prime priority for this country in a shrinking and increasingly competitive world. So let us, for the sake of argument, accept the prime minister's slogan, 'Education, education, education.' Let us resist the temptation - briefly - to recall that virtually all the reforms that did so much to raise standards today were resisted at their introduction by Labour in opposition, thus sending indelible signals to the system as to what Labour in government would be like. Forget all that. Many of our schools are excellent, most of our teachers are hard-working and dedicated. So what has happened in those other schools that are letting the system down?

Virtually nothing. The same minority of inadequate teachers, the same sloppy standards, the same failure of leadership. Speeches are made, a forest of paper circulated, but nothing changes. Ministers have the powers to act but they don't.

The system has, in effect, done what it does most effectively - it has read the tea leaves. Here is a Government very good at talking about reform but with neither the ideas nor the ministers to pursue it. Welfare reform died with the passing of Frank Field; the abolition of fund-holding forced the pace-setting doctors in management practice back into larger, more remote bureaucracies and a more sluggish partnership with the reluctant tail of the profession. 'Best practice' restored power to the local authorities as judge and jury in their municipalities, replacing the test of cost with a set of value judgments about the quality of service which, in practice, will exclude much of the effectiveness of competition and value for money.

Oh yes, the system has got the message.

If the prime minister wishes to achieve reform he will be unwise to centralise power in his own hands or to build up the Downing Street machine at the expense of Whitehall's individual power bases. It will exacerbate the inevitable rivalries and resentments, as powerful colleagues feel bypassed and excluded. It will fuel the appetite of commentators anxious to stir up any pot into which they can intrude their spoon. It will encourage not only a sullen resentment in departments jealous of their traditional pecking order but also a tendency for those departments to blame what went wrong on 'them' in No 10. The heat will focus increasingly on the prime minister and there will be plenty around to fan the flames. It will end in tears.

Civil servants need clear instructions and ministers who know that their essential role in the system is to take decisions. Prime ministers need to know their agenda, to define it in a way that allows no doubt about intention or timing, and then have ministers able to drive the policy through. Put those factors in place and the system will respond. If it doesn't, then change the ministers, not the system.

Ministers undergo no training. They rely on whatever experience they have had in or out of governments. Most are absorbed by their departments almost without realising it. They read their briefs, argue the case and resolve the many small details that confront them in their daily ministerial life. History flows on, little changed. Some live a life almost imprisoned in their red box. They possess an astonishing appetite for paperwork. Night after night, through each weekend they devour mountains of information, raising questions, seeking yet more information. In this rich kaleidoscope of human life the prize is for those with the ability to judge and to decide. The system rapidly determines who they are and serves them to the best of its very considerable ability.

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