Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

‘Speaking Truth to Power’ – New Long Read

I am glad to announce three new ways to access to my website material.

The Civil Servant and other sites are now very popular …

… but it can be difficult to find the material you need.  There are five separate sites and hundreds of pages.  So I am making a number of changes including consolidating the most popular pages into a series of long reads and booklets.  The first one is …

Speaking Truth to Power – How to have people listen to your advice and act on it.

This is a key civil service skill – but it is not a skill that is taught unless you are lucky enough to work with experienced officials who are happy to share their knowledge.  The new long read investigates why ‘speaking truth’ is so difficult and offers nine techniques which will help you be heard.

You can read this new advice in three ways.

1.  You can subscribe to my distribution list which will provide you with links to free A4 PDFs as soon as they are published.  Follow this link to subscribe.

2.  You can buy a really nice, slim paperback version for £4.50.  This is the Amazon link.

3.  If you prefer eBooks then the Kindle version of Speaking Truth to Power costs only £0.99.  This link takes you to the correct Amazon page.

I am also glad to announce that I have organised a late summer flash sale of How to be a Civil Servant. The price is now £8.95.  The price will revert to £12.99 next week.

Forthcoming titles:

I hope to publish Leading and Managing Policy Teams later this month, followed by Understanding Organisational Behaviour.

Future titles might include Civil Service Reform,  Effective Regulation,  Effective Consultation,  Handling Crises,  and  The Ethics of Large Organisations.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding the Civil Service

Taking Back Control of Regulation – Part 2

A recent government consultation document Reforming the Framework for Better Regulation looks important.  This is the second of a two-part summary which might encourage you to read and respond to the document itself.  You can read the first part here. 

Adopting a Proportionality Principle

The document argues that ‘some of the current regulatory standards the UK has inherited from the EU are based on an overly restrictive interpretation of the precautionary principle’.  It suggests, therefore, that ‘a new ‘Proportionality Principle’ … should be mandated at the heart of all UK regulation. Under this principle, the Government would focus on regulating in a proportionate way.’

Comment:- This is the weakest section of an otherwise high quality consultation.  It provides no evidence that the precautionary principle has ever been taken too far, whether in the EU or the UK.  And the suggestion that regulation should be ‘proportionate’ is, on the face of it, what all good regulators should do anyway.  The limited discussion in the document leads me to suspect this is a bit of fluff rather than anything that would make a big difference in the real world.  Contrary views would be welcome!


Regulators might be given duties to promote competition and innovation.  This would be in addition, in many cases, to their current statutory obligations ‘to design their service and enforcement policies in a manner that best suits the needs of businesses and other regulated entities’ and consider ‘the potential impacts of their activities and their decisions on economic growth’. 

Comment:-  This would require regulators yet again to make subjective and in effect political judgments for which they are not properly accountable at the ballot box.  (One particularly bad example is the Financial Conduct Authority which was recently given six considerations to take into account to add to its four objectives, its competition duty, and its eight regulatory principles. One of these requirements was that the FCA should have regard to the competitiveness of the City of London – a particularly vague and troubling objective, especially as watchdogs should not also be cheer-leaders for the industries that they are supposed to be policing.)

Government ‘Helping’ Regulators Improve

The Government suggests that it …

‘… could invite regulators to survey all of the businesses they regulate to receive ideas on how they can do that more efficiently from the point of view of the businesses being regulated. Regulators could then be invited to explain what they have learnt from this exercise and what changes they propose to make in response.’

‘The Government could also conduct a series of deep dives into individual regulators and act as a critical friend to develop recommendations for the regulator to consider (in a manner that would respect the independence of regulators).  (Emphasis added)  Such deep dives could involve shadowing the regulator to look at its practices and procedures, scrutinising the regulators’ appraisals of regulatory change, and talking to its customers directly, and would be used to identify areas where change could be introduced to smooth processes for the regulated businesses. The results of the survey outlined above could help inform these deep dives and help inform areas of focus.’

Comment:-   These suggestions are apparently innocuous and won’t trouble those regulators who already have a good and transparent relationship with their sponsoring departments.  I was Chief Executive of two regulators and, if anything, felt that my colleagues in central government knew too little about the way we worked, and the challenges we faced.

But … I suspect that many regulators will, quite rightly, feel somewhat threatened by these proposals.  It is not hard to imagine that a strongly pro-business and anti-regulation administration could deploy business surveys and deep dives to deploy serious pressure to encourage light touch regulation.   Strong and truly independent regulators could no doubt withstand such pressure, but many would fold.  And let’s not forget what light touch financial services regulation led to in 2007/8

Earlier Scrutiny?

The Regulatory Policy Committee currently scrutinises regulatory proposals only …

‘… after ministers have agreed to the policy they want to take forward and a decision has been made to regulate to achieve the policy aims. This can be too late in the policy development cycle and does not ensure scrutiny of the decision to regulate (in the form of legislation) rather than using non-regulatory approaches to achieve the desired aim.  …  Scrutiny of policy proposals could happen at the beginning of the policy development cycle, when policy options are developed and appraised and the alternatives to regulation are considered. This process could start when a decision has been made by a minister to regulate; an early document could be produced setting out the options that have been considered and why none of them are as suitable as regulation.’

Comment:-  This proposal seems eminently sensible, even if one harbours doubts about whether it could or would work in practice, given ministers predilection for making policy announcements well before thinking through the implications, let alone having a properly resourced and practical implementation plan.

Finally , should we resurrect …

One In, X Out?

There is an interesting critique of the limitations of the government’s Business Impact Target which has lain at the heart of most recent assessments of regulatory policy.   (The target has been five times the annual total of new regulations’ Equivalent Annual Net Direct Cost to Business (EANDCB).)

The obvious problem with this measure is that it excludes all the regulations’ indirect benefits and non-monetised benefits, such as environmental and social benefits.  This approach is however consistent with the government’s approach to financial expenditure, much of which is similarly constrained by annual limits, whatever the longer term benefits of the expenditure.

The One In, Three Out policy was abandoned in 2017.  Its faults are well summarised in this subsequent real world example in the consultation document.

Following the 2018 Gaming Machines Review, the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals was cut from £100 to £2. This measure scored a large cost on business (EANDCB: £450million per annum) but that made immaterial any effort to save businesses a few £m in other regulatory areas for the overall government target. Also, the Department expected there to be significant benefits to society, including from reduced government expenditure in areas linked to gambling-related harm such as healthcare or the criminal justice system, but these could not be monetised or accurately quantified.

In a One-in, X-out system, presumed to use this same metric, government would therefore have needed to find £450m pa (or £900m pa or £1350m) offsetting savings (‘OUTs’) to have enabled the stake cut to have been made. (By way of comparison, £450m pa is almost the total savings of all the Red Tape Challenge initiatives over 2011-2014, involving amending or revoking over 2000 regulations.)

Comment;-  It seems pretty clear from this example that HMG has no intention of resurrecting this deeply flawed policy.

Concluding Comment

These two blogs have only listed the most interesting of the many ideas in this consultation.  They have the potential to bring about real change in the UK’s approach to regulation.  I would therefore urge all those interested in regulation to read and respond to the document on or before Friday 1 October. 

Note: A previous version of this blog was published by Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Regulation

Taking Back Control of Regulation?

“We haven’t taken power back from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels just to hand it to our own unelected bureaucrats back home” explained a Conservative minister quoted by Robert Shrimsley. But a current government consultation document suggests that this is exactly what ministers might want to do.

Reforming the Framework for Better Regulation is important.  The government itself says that one proposal [would] have far-reaching consequences – potentially both positive and negative.  So here is the first of a two-part summary which might encourage you to read and respond to the document itself.

The fact that Lord (David) Frost is one of the joint authors gives a strong clue to the document’s ideological underpinning which is in part the (politically understandable) drive to demonstrate that Brexit will make a real difference. The post-Brexit policy focus has been on trade and the possibility/challenges of forging new trade deals, and there’s been less public debate about regulation and what exactly a new (less precautionary?, more flexible?) regulatory regime would allow the UK to do that it currently cannot.

The consultation is all about reforming the Better Regulation Framework.  This was designed to ensure that government regulation is proportionate and is only used where alternative non-regulatory approaches would not achieve the desired policy outcomes.   It is intended to ensure the Government is accountable for new regulation. Where government intervention requires a legislative or policy change, departments are expected to analyse and assess the impact of the change on the different groups affected. This generally takes the form of an impact assessment (IA) which is subject to review by the Regulatory Policy Committee.

The consultation document begins with a useful summary (see Annex below) of post-2006 regulatory reforms.  It then turns to the ideas to which ministers want reactions.

Cutting Out Parliament

First, should we adopt a more UK ‘common law’ approach to regulation, abandoning that pesky European (Napoleonic, Roman Law?) approach?  Should we, in other words, stop setting out detailed rules laid out in regulations and instead delegate more power and discretion to regulators and replace prescriptive statutory frameworks with outcomes to be achieved.  Regulatory regimes would then be shaped more by case law rather than primary or secondary legislation. 

Parliament would then …

‘… set out only what is prohibited or the outcomes to be achieved, in plain English, and set out any parameters within which regulators would need to operate to meet these outcomes, but then giving regulators appropriate powers and discretion over how to do so, rather than legislation setting out all of the rules that businesses have to comply with in detail.’

[This flexibility would] ‘allow regulators to do more through guidance, decisions and rules that could be adapted quickly outside of legislative frameworks. This could allow them to respond more quickly to disruptive new technologies and other changes in circumstances. Requirements could be set out in guidance in plain English that could be more easily understood than legislation, making them more accessible to the average reader.  … regulators would still have to set out some detail in rules and guidance but would have the flexibility to change these without having to petition the Government to introduce further legislation.’

On the other hand, the document recognises that…

‘… this approach could lead to more uncertainty in the regulated markets and more litigation’. It could ultimately lead to more regulation being created overall, through mechanisms which are less responsive to public scrutiny and democratic accountability. Regulatory regimes need certainty to be effective and enforceable, so flexible regimes need to have safeguards in place to ensure that requirements are clearly framed in unambiguous terms to avoid uncertainty. It is also important that businesses and individuals have reasonable notice of changes so they can know what is required of them at any given time, and to ensure that breaches can be effectively enforced.

A shift away from prescriptive statutory regimes, leaving regulators to shape the detail in individual regulatory areas, could mean more court time taken with regulated parties defending prosecutions or other sanctions – for example, if the requirements were too vague and uncertain. There would need to be clear outcomes, set out in legislation, for regulators to achieve and clear criteria for regulators on how they should achieve those outcomes. A further consideration for regulatory regimes where it is relevant is that criminal offences and penalties must be provided for in law.’


If adopted, this new approach would represent a remarkable transfer of power away from Parliament and away from ordinary citizens and consumers.  Our MPs could no longer pass legislation to influence the detailed behaviour of regulators.  Regulators could be challenged only in the courts which are generally inaccessible to the vast majority of the population, especially given recent governments’ hobbling of judicial review.

This approach does rather echo other moves this government has made (going back to Brexit but in other areas too), and will be seen by many as further evidence of its populist dislike of legislative and other constraints upon executive power.  I myself doubt whether this is one of the animating motives of the government here.  Perhaps naively, I hope that this is really about a different vision of how good regulation should operate and of the merits of a more discretionary model. 

But the proposal surely exacerbates the concern that Paul Tucker and others have expressed about the already too weak accountability of regulators for decisions involving value judgments that should be in the political domain. The document addresses this concern by suggesting that there might be ‘a more direct form of accountability by regulators to Parliament’.  But having to explain its decisions to easily distracted Parliamentarians would not, I suggest, be much of a constraint on a regulator with a mission – or indeed an incompetent or under-funded regulator. 

To be fair, the document also says that …

‘This is a proposal that will have far-reaching consequences – potentially both positive and negative. … We are … considering whether the extent to which flexibility is delegated should vary by regulator based on what they are responsible for, as the pros and cons of this approach are likely to vary depending on the area of regulation, or whether regulators should have more limited flexibility to only exercise discretion in targeted ways.’

This is such an important (and apparently real) consultation that it deserves to generate lots of serious responses.  It will in particular be interesting to see how businesses, trade organisations, business groups etc. respond.  What would it all mean to them Is what is being proposed really what they/we need/want? Is it achievable? 

It will be important, too, that there are high quality responses, including from regulators, that consider the impact on civic society.

Note: A previous version of this blog was published by Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy. The second part of this two-part blog is here.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Regulation


This is the document’s useful, if daunting, list of post-2006 regulatory reforms. 

The length of this list suggests that successive governments have found it very difficult to improve the way in which they have developed and used their regulatory powers.

  • The creation of the Better Regulation Executive (BRE)
  • The current Better Regulation Framework
  • The Administrative Burden Reduction Programme
  • The One in, One/Two/Three Out policies
  • Small and Micro Business Assessments
  • The Small Business Enterprise and Employment Act 2015
  • The Business Impact Target
  • The 2019 Regulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution white paper
  • The Regulatory Horizons Council
  • The Plan for Digital Regulation
  • TIGGR – the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform
  • Improved and increased International Regulatory Cooperation
  • The Open Regulation Platform
  • The Digital Regulation Navigator
  • The Smart Regulation project
  • The National Data Strategy
  • The Chancellor’s 2021 Mansion House speech focusing on reform for the financial services sector
  • The [Financial Services] Future Regulatory Framework Review


How the Senior Civil Service deals with Rats

The various branches of the armed forces like to tease each other – see How the Military deal with Snakes published a few weeks ago.

Here is the equivalent inter-departmental teasing, gathered together by a necessarily anonymous senior civil servant.

How the SCS deals with Rats

  1. Cabinet Office: sets up a Committee of Inquiry to report within two years, chaired by a retired politician with expertise in banking and finance (and coincidentally a former flatmate of a Minister) whose name was found in the list of the great and the good. He is listed as an expert in rating.
  2. Home Office:  identifies some species of rats that appear not to merit sufficient points to remain in the country under immigration rules, but fail in a court case on deportation as documents are submitted late and appear to be badly chewed, thus obscuring legal arguments.
  3. Foreign Office: advise that under international law it is not possible to act without a United Nations resolution, but send senior diplomat to West Indies to investigate their possible approach to similar problems.
  4. Scottish Office: claims rat problem would not have existed but for Brexit and advise on the need for a referendum on ratifying additional transitional arrangements for exporting new brand of Scottish rat haggis.
  5. Welsh Office: make submission for special subsidy for the erection of bi-lingual signs to advise on risks of rat infestation from England.
  6. HM Treasury: rule out extra funds to deal with the problem but instigate several contracts to consultancy firms on how to best apply private sector expertise to the problem. In the mean-time propose a rat tax to fund the studies.
  7. Transport: put forward startling statistical cost benefit model that demonstrates that progress will only be made by building more roads and high-speed rail links to allow rat catchers to be ferried round the country on average 40 minutes faster.
  8. DEFRA: protest that the increase in rats is part of a long-planned initiative to re-wild parts of  East Anglia, Birmingham and London that they have always intended to promote once we had left the EU and their grey squirrel, parakeet and beaver policies had been shown to be successful.
  9. Northern Ireland Office: require a large increase in funding for the building of heated barns in which to keep trapped rats for observation before export to the EU via Dublin.
  10. Health: insist that the policy should follow the science and require a lockdown for another year while food waste is reduced to starve rats out. In the meantime, Professor Whitty would deliver weekly news conferences on progress and in TV ads fronted by him and a man in a white coat.
  11. Work and Pensions: lobby for a new annual winter rat payment to be administered by local offices when claimants present a suitable number of rats’ tails. Require funds for a pilot study on Merseyside.
  12. Defence: mobilise the air force to carry out an aerial survey of rats using new technology to be bought from the USA; alert the navy to give weekly reports on rats leaving naval vessels in all dockyards; make the case for new drones to be bought to allow the army to target rats with small rocket propelled devices; set up a Committee to sort out which service policy should be given priority given funding shortfalls; and in the mean-time instruct the SAS to eat as many rats as they can.
  13. Revenue and Customs: make case for VAT to be raised on all rat products including rat poison,  but say rat tax proposed by the Treasury is unworkable for technical reasons and certainly without an increase in their IT budget.
  14. Education: set up a bursary for academic studies in research councils on rat behaviour, to report within ten years.
  15. Attorney General: advise that the targeting of rats from drones as proposed by the MOD may be lawful under international law provided that there is a suitable dossier authenticating the risk from rat infestation. The full advice should not however to be published for legal reasons.
  16.  Office of National Statistics: report that according to the latest statistical information available from 1999 there should not really be a rat problem, but suggest further evidence should be gathered by commissioning an ONS random sample study under which all respondents would be paid £25 to report their recent rat experience in a matched sample to be carried out over three years.
  17. 10 Downing Street: set up a photo opportunity in which the Prime Minister can be seen in a high viz jacket and a hard hat holding up the corpse of a dead rat to the admiring but anxious gaze of a small child, and telling her that  there is nothing to be worried about.
  18.  Digital, Culture, Media and Sport: lobby for funding for the BBC for a new prime time series called “Splat the Rat” hosted by Joe Wicks in which rats are to be pursued by teams of sporting and theatre celebrities. They would later cook the rat meat in new UK recipes from around the regions such as Lancashire rat pot, Yorkshire rat pie, and Cornish ratsie. In the meantime DCMS propose hiring unemployed musicians to attempt to pipe the rats out of the country.

And Stefan Czerniawski added that:-

  • MHCLG: are repeatedly told by Local Authorities that there isn’t a rat problem in the first place, but choose to take no notice of their practical experience, still less to share that insight across the rest of government.

Martin Stanley

Author – How to be a Civil Servant

Grenfell Tower, Catastrophe and Systemic Change

This blog summarises a fascinating and important book by Gill Kernick.

Gill lived on the 21st floor of Grenfell Tower until 2014.  Three years later, seven of her immediate neighbours died in the catastrophic fire. 

Gill works with high-hazard industries to build their leadership capabilities and culture in order to prevent catastrophic events.  She therefore imagined that a residential fire that killed 72 people would engender a desire to learn and change.  She was wrong.  Her book and accompanying podcasts explore the reasons why.


Catastrophic events are by nature low probability  – but they have extremely high consequences.  They don’t just happen.  We create them.  Their frequency and/or intensity can be reduced, but we have to do this in a quite different way from which we reduce the impact of slips, trips and falls.

Excellent leaders avoid catastrophes by deploying chronic unease – constantly searching for dangers and vulnerabilities.  They are aware that the difference between a near miss and a catastrophic event is often a matter of chance. So it is vital to be on the look out for weak signals that something is not right, that something could go wrong.  These can always be found (in hindsight) after major disasters.

Chronic unease also means guarding against natural reaction of ceasing to listen if deluged by complaints.  The opposite reaction is the better one.

Effective leaders are empathetic.  They demonstrate that they care, and can imagine what could happen if a ‘fix’ doesn’t work.  They explicitly or implicitly wonder whether they would be happy if they or their child were asked to work or live in the environment under their control, knowing the risks that they do.

It is not difficult to find examples of leaders failing to respond properly to danger signals.  There were, before the fire, many well documented expressions of Grenfell residents’ concerns about then performance of their Tenant Management Organisation, including concern about fire risk. 

And the Lakanal House fire coroner (2009, six deaths) had recommended that buildings such as Grenfell should be fitted with sprinklers, and that ‘stay put’ advice should be reviewed.  Neither had happened by the time of the Grenfell fire, eight years later.  Here is a minister’s response to fellow MPs’ concerns about the delay:

‘I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest consideration of any of [the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner) is urgent and I’m not willing to disrupt the work of my department by asking that these matters are brought forward.’

Here are two other examples.

Before the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, seven drivers had failed to see and stop at the red light missed by one of the two drivers who died, along with 29 others, at Ladbroke Grove.  The train operator had asked Railtrack ‘as a matter of urgency what [they] intended to do about this high-risk issue’ – but reply came there none.

Jill Rutter tells how senior BP managers knew that their Texas City refinery was a disaster area.  But its problems could only addressed by closing it down for a long periods, and that would have harmed BP’s bottom line at a time when it was a stock exchange darling reporting increasing profits each quarter.  15 died in the subsequent explosion.

Learning from Disasters

The second way to avoid catastrophes is to ensure that responses to disasters involve systemic change. 

Most inquiries lead only to piecemeal change.  They assume a controllable, predictable world in which an error can be prevented through technical solutions or new bureaucratic, command and control rules designed by experts.  The Mid-Staffs inquiry, for instance, led to 270 recommendations which undoubtedly became a tick box exercise for NHS trusts around the country. 

Rules and regulations are never a perfect answer.  They are by their nature reactive and so cannot displace the need to continually search for vulnerabilities.  Compliance is never 100% and compliance falls sharply, and enforcement becomes very difficult, if the regulations are complex, which is too often the case.  (Examples might be the pre-Grenfell building regulations and the Covid guidance and legislation.) Some organisations and individuals actively seek to circumvent regulation.

Systemic change assumes a complex and changing world in which disruption and experimentation are likely routes to improvement.  Those leading systemic change have strong values and draw on the expertise of all stakeholders. They understand and focus on the true purpose of the system – hospital staff caring about (not just ‘for’) their patients, in the case of Mid-Staffs. 

Tick-box and regulatory activity is attractive because they are outputs – they can easily be measured.  But they are not outcomes, valuable in themselves.  So how do we know that systemic change is happening? The answer is to look out for leading indicators.  Do people feel that they are encouraged to report dangers?  Are there plenty of near-miss reports?  Do patients feel well cared for?

Will Grenfell lead to systemic change?  The signs are not good.  Political and media attention has moved on and, four years later, there has been relatively little progress in addressing even the most urgent issues such as the cladding on other buildings.  There has also been little or no sign of the construction industry accepting responsibility for contributing to the disaster in any way – a necessary precursor to avoiding future problems.

Other Lessons

Gill draws a number of other lessons, for regulators, decision makers and others. In brief …

Regulators need to be adaptable to cope with new dangers and technologies, and should not lose sight of their core purpose, such as ensuring safety. Resource constrained enforcement can (but should not) lead to regulatory obligations becoming seen as a maximum target which might be attained of you are lucky, rather than a minimum which must be achieved without fail. 

Decision makers should avoid number-counting and tick-box consultations.  Many other more effective mechanisms are available. 

Decision makers should in particular challenge their assumptions about whose knowledge counts.  It can be experts (e.g. during Covid crisis) but it might well also be those on the front line – including junior staff and local residents.  There was little sign, for instance, that emergency managers were involved in designing the UK’s response to Covid-19.  And the government looked far too ‘blokey’.  The involvement of women, minorities and SMEs in planning would likely have led to better decisions.

Bureaucracies (and companies run like bureaucracies) compile excellent risk registers but should avoid regarding this as ‘job done’ and then failing to take the necessary action to reduce the key risks   The UK’s national risk register, for instance, gave prominence to a possible pandemic whose impact was given the highest possible rating – and yet the 120,000 Covid-19 deaths suggests that the country remained woefully under-prepared. 

Resilience is often seen as paying a big insurance premium for cover for a disaster that you hope won’t happen, or won’t happen on your watch.  But resilience can often be bought in inexpensive ways.  The UK’s pandemic preparations, for instance, did not necessarily need expensive stockpiles.  There could most likely have been plans to requisition manufacturing capacity.

Last, and certainly not least, Gill asks …

Why do we find it so difficult to learn?

One problem is our obsession with blame which doesn’t fix anything, least of all the systemic issues. Blame can be helpful if it sharpens debate, exposes issues.  But it is too often unhelpful because everyone naturally tries to avoid being blamed, so it too often inhibits debate.

For a start, behaviour is context dependent.  There is little point in identifying someone who has made a mistake if you then replace them with someone else who will in future make similar mistakes because they remain subject to the same pressures and constraints.

This is particularly true in government. We all – and journalists in particular – like to ascribe blame to one person.  In government, we like to assume that everything is about, and caused by, Presidents, Prime Ministers and other political leaders.  But the truth is much more complex.  Political leaders work within a system and most decisions are taken at much lower and/or more local levels.  There is seldom if ever any serious political will to bring about systemic change following a catastrophe, especially once the media spotlight has moved elsewhere.  The key political imperative is to avoid blame. 

This absence of political will is exacerbated by weaknesses in parliamentary governance and accountability.  There is in particular no process that ensures that recommendations from public inquiries are implemented, or assessed for effectiveness.

It is therefore devoutly to be hoped that Gill’s book will help bring about genuine change in the UK’s political system, including both the media and senior officials.  If there is no change then we are surely not honouring the 72 who died.

Further Reading and Listening

This blog can only summarise a well sourced and well argued book.  If you would like more detail and analysis then I suggest you begin by watching Gill’s fascinating conversation with Diane Coyle and Jill Rutter on the Bennett Institute website

You can also listen to Gill’s podcast series, Catastrophe

And then Gill’s book can be bought here:- 

… or on Amazon.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Regulation

‘Government Reimagined’

There have, since 2007, been over 30 think tank reports on government in general and the civil service in particular, and another large number published by various parliamentary committees and the government itself. The latest report, ‘Government Reimagined’, is (I think) the first from Policy Exchange. It is, like so many of its predecessors, well-researched, sensible and full of good ideas.

Inevitably, though, most of the the proposals have already been made time and time again, and often accepted time and time again – and then forgotten or watered down. Cross-departmental regional hubs, anyone? Or greater diversity? What about Ministerial training? Or greater senior official responsibility ‘with commensurate accountability and reward’ – during austerity? And wouldn’t it be a good idea if “civil servants [were to] stay in key jobs for longer so expertise is built and collective memory achieved? Tell that to Permanent Secretaries on fixed term contracts, trying to lead departments in which they have no prior experience.

A large part of the problem is that many of the recommendations raise difficult constitutional questions to which there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. The only people who can answer these questions are politicians themselves, and they repeatedly fail to do so. In particular:

  • Do they want to abandon the advantages of Cabinet government (and the possible pleasure of being a proper Cabinet Minister) in order to gain the advantages of centralised command and control?
  • Do they want senior officials to be responsible for achieving worthwhile outcomes (and to stride more quickly through ‘the treacle’) if that needs those same officials to make politically unpopular decisions. (As one commentator noted recently, If there were a big red button labelled ‘Improve Environment without Annoying Anyone’ it would have been pressed long ago. )

It is now 14 years since Christopher Hood and Martin Lodge identified Civil Service Reform Syndrome:- “a rash of … attempts to fix up the bureaucracy, with the same pattern of hype from the centre, selective filtering at the extremities and political attention deficit syndrome that works against any follow-through and continuity”. Will the reports published over the next 14 years be taken more seriously by our political leaders?

Martin Stanley
Editor Understanding the Civil Service

How the Military deal with Snakes

The Armed Services are not great fans of the civil service. They often joke that ‘Britain has invented a new missile. It’s called the civil servant – it doesn’t work and it can’t be fired.’

I was therefore pleased to find that the various elements of the military also like to joke about their own colleagues. I particularly like the last two items in this summary of how the various branches deal with snakes-

  1. Infantry: Tracks snake through jungle. Snake smells them and quickly leaves area, travelling upwind.
  2. Parachute Regiment: Lands on and kills snake.
  3. Armour: Runs over snake, laughs and looks for more snakes.
  4. Cavalry: Treats snake with haughty disdain as having no impact on primary objective – to hold London against the Roundheads at all costs.
  5. Royal Marine Commando: Plays with snake, gets smashed with snake. Eats snake.
  6. Combat Engineer: Studies snake. Prepares tactical plan for fixing snake using counter-mobility assets and defeating snake using mobility assets. Chain of command pays no attention. Snake falls into hole dug by infantry and drowns.
  7. Artillery: Fires 3 hour concentrated barrage. Misses snake. Tree blown up by stray round falls on snake and kills it. Mission declared successful and all participants awarded gallantry medals.
  8. Special Forces: Makes contact with snake and, ignoring Foreign Office directives, builds rapport with snake and starts winning its heart and mind. Trains it to kill other snakes. Files massive expense claims. Writes bestseller “Python Two Zero”
  9. Army Medical Services: Snake dies by mistake on operating table. Dissects snake.
  10. Royal Navy: Fires 183 missiles from 17 ships. Estimates 60% of snake killed. Makes PowerPoint presentation to MoD Select Committee on how Naval forces are the most cost-effective means of conducting anti-snake operations.
  11. Territorial Army: Kills snake by accident on weekend camp. Keeps quite about it.
  12. RAF: Obtains geo-co-ordinates for snake. Alerts 40 Jaguars, 20 Harriers, Raf Regiment. Loads laser-guided bombs by mistake. Flies in at 20,000 feet. Can’t’ find snake. Drops bombs in sea on way home. Returns to base for crew rest, dry-cleaning collection, facial and manicure.
  13. Intelligence Corps: Snake? What snake? Only 4 of 35 indicators of snake presence currently active. Assesses potential for snake activity as low. Dies of snakebite.
  14. Defence Logistic Organisation: Orders 2-year study by Anderson Consultants at cost of 1.5m, generation massive workload at grade 1 staff level. Report kinds that killing snake may contribute to 20% output costing savings by inclusion of snake meat in tri-Service messing. Snake Meat Implementation Team formed, with 2-star tri-Service steering group. Aim to introduce snake meat into all messes and ration packs by 2002. Snake experts from Special Forces and Gurkhas told not know what talking about. High profile £2M PR campaign launched featuring celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott and retired 4-star officers keen to supplement their excessive pensions. Snake meat launched in Service messes and restaurants to resounding clamour of apathy. Desperate to recoup lost money. Army demolishes 300 married quarters and sells snake meat holdings to Indian and Canadian Armed Forces.
  15. Defence Procurement Agency: Decide they want to buy a Snake. Offer ambiguous contract out for tender. Contract states that an ell will be supplied to meet the performance characteristics of a snake as laid out in the aforementioned ambiguous contract. 6 years late and 3 billion pounds over budget, the project is scrapped and a COTS snake is bought from the US for $10 billion.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

Civil Servants, the SNP and Boris Johnson

The Johnson Government and its MPs have little in common with the former Conservative Party.  Worryingly, from a civil service perspective, they have much more in common with the Scottish National Party.

The SNP came to power in Scotland having had no previous experience of government and with few core policies other than Scottish Independence. It had a charismatic and controversial leader in Alex Salmond but wasn’t supported by any heavyweight think tanks, nor by experienced Special Advisers. The new government accordingly leant heavily upon Scottish Government civil servants. The latter work within the rules and customs of the wider UK Civil Service, and in particular are supposed to avoid any sign of political allegiance. In practice, partly as a result of ministerial pressure, and partly because it was the only way to ensure smooth and effective administration, senior officials became close to SNP ministers and were more obviously supportive of SNP policies than their London colleagues (or the Public Administration Select Committee) thought wise. More recently, Scottish Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans has of course been accused of lack of impartiality in the handling of the investigation into Alex Salmond.

The parallels with the Boris Johnson government in Westminster are all too clear. The Johnson Cabinet is weak and inexperienced, having been chosen exclusively from the ranks of Brexiteers. It has a charismatic but controversial leader and no obvious core policies other than to get Brexit done. Its promise to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all – with a clear plan we have prepared” was a lie. It didn’t have any idea how it intended to take advantage of post-Brexit freedoms, nor did it have an “oven-ready Brexit deal”. Its closest supporters may not be drawn from post-UKIP ‘fruitcakes’ but they are certainly not drawn from mainstream industrialists, scientists and economists – or even heavyweight think tanks. Its most prominent Special Advisers, in the form of Dominic Cummings and his close colleagues, clearly had no clue how to get things done in government.

The result, as in Scotland, has been heavy reliance on a civil service that has in turn been anxious to ingratiate itself with its new political bosses. Obliquely supportive officials’ tweets have become more common and the recent Good Law Project litigation has shown how Cabinet Office officials have given up challenging procurement decisions. 

It is perhaps even more concerning that Whitehall mandarins had previously learnt not to challenge any policy that was anything to do with Brexit. There is no sign, in the recently published Jeremy Heywood biography, that he or any of his senior colleagues fought to be allowed even clandestine preparations for a referendum decision to leave the EU, even though Rachel Sylvester (I think correctly) reports that, ‘There is now widespread recognition in Whitehall that [this was] one of the biggest mistakes made before the referendum’. Nor is there any sign that they were forceful in seeking to get ministers to face up to the clear need for a border either between Northern Ireland and the Republic, or down the Irish Sea, even though, as his new biography reveals, Jeremy Heywood commented as follows as long ago as 2016:  “But do you know what the most difficult issue is? … Ireland”.

But what else could they do, potentially faced with a choice between having limited influence and no influence at all? Exactly the same dilemma has faced political journalists who would have lost all their access to gossip and intrigue if they had challenged Johnson, Gove et al in the way that the civil service had failed to do. The self-censorship was perhaps most obvious on the BBC’s main channels where a perceived  anti-government stance could have imperilled the institution’s core funding. 

The same dilemma faced most of the private sector who (in my view correctly) thought it wrong to criticise the referendum result, but went on to fail to challenge ministers’ approach to implementation. They were almost certainly wise to fear politicians who reacted angrily to criticism. Even Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had forced Deloitte to withdraw from bidding for government contracts for six months when she heard that the consulting firm had expressed concern that she drew in too many decisions and details to be settled by herself. It is disturbing that senior officials allowed this to happen. Deloitte had done nothing wrong, and her response probably broke the law in the form of EU procurement rules. As David Lock QC commented ‘truth telling is not a permissible reason to exclude bidders’.

This is a deeply depressing story, but it was also predictable and predicted. John Kay, as long ago as 2013, forecast that Scottish independence could likely lead to a mixture of rather conservative municipal socialism and crony capitalism. He might as well have been talking about post-Brexit Britain. And David Richards et al have long chronicled the decline of the Westminster Model of UK government:

‘Since 1997, but in particular after 2010, a number of core changes in the process of governing have fundamentally transformed both Whitehall and more broadly, the state. This in turn creates a crucial problem; whilst UK governance is going through a process of radical change, the constitutional precepts are said to remain in place. The net effect … is that the mechanisms of democracy and accountability are not keeping up with changes in practice. The … shift in the nature of the relationship between ministers and civil servants [means that] the deliberative space afforded for critical engagement over public policy has been diminished. The Westminster Model has always been recognised for its limited number of veto points. Such a shift has further exacerbated this dimension of the model, leading to what Anthony King and Ivor Crewe refer to as growth in the “blunders of our governments”.’

Sadly, as long as the Johnson government – and to a lesser extent the Scottish nationalists – believe that everyone who is not ‘for’ them must be ‘against’ them, they will continue to face very little challenge from the media, from industry and in particular from their civil servants. There will be the occasional principled resignation along the lines of Home Office Permanent Secretary Philip Rutnam and chief lawyer Jonathan Jones, but it is noticeable that their senior colleagues either disagreed with them or (more likely) did not have the guts to follow them. But no-one seems to care. As David Allen Green commented so perceptively in a recent tweet: 

‘Law and policy commentary in the age of Brexit, Trump and Covid is like being Benjamin the donkey in Animal Farm: “Fools!” Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?’

[This blog was first published by the Constitution Society.]

[Probably the best forensic analysis of Boris Johnson’s lies may be found in Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth.]

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

English Devolution (and The Mystery of the Disappearing Speech)

England has one of the most centralised systems of government in the world. And yet, ever since 1997, every government has promised more devolution.  This blog looks back at what has actually happened and summarises the present unsatisfactory state of play.

In short …

Labour delivered genuinely devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and introduced a Mayor and Assembly for London but achieved little else south of the border.

The subsequent Coalition and Conservative Governments entered into a whirl of activity based around local areas negotiating individual “Deals” with central government for greater control over key policy areas.  But although some powers have been passed down from central government, they often come with limitations on their use and, with some exceptions, do not include the power to raise revenue.  The majority of funding continues to come from central grants that can be withdrawn/modified at ministerial discretion.   And recent spats with the likes of Andy Burnham have reminded ministers of the political dangers of creating regional power bases.

The result is that local government in England is now a surely unsustainable patchwork of different governance models and powers.  Whitehall retains tight control, and a White Paper on Devolution in England appears to have been shelved.  The debate looks increasingly likely to be wrapped into a bigger discussion about the future of the Union.

In more detail …

Labour’s regional agenda

Apart from the London Mayor and Assembly, the 1997-2010 Labour Government left England largely unchanged. Labour was much more concerned about improving central government decision making than in empowering local government.

The previous Conservative Administration had already created a network of Government Offices (GOs) in the nine English regions to decentralise and join up central government decision making.  (You can read a ‘lessons learned’ account of the program here.)

Labour created Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to sit alongside the GOs and charged them with developing Regional Economic Strategies.  Outside London, Labour also created Regional Assemblies, which were voluntary partnerships between local government and “social and economic partners”, and promised to make them directly elected in due course with a range of powers over economic and planning issues. Legislation was introduced in 2003 but the rejection of an Assembly for the North East in a referendum in the following year brought devolution to a halt.  (Dominic Cummings played a leading role in the campaign against the Assembly.) 

Assemblies were then replaced by Local Authority Leaders Boards. These no longer included other partners and had joint responsibility with the RDAs for signing off new integrated regional strategies, which brought together economic and spatial issues.

Insofar as Labour addressed sub regional issues, they did so through the mechanisms of Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs), Local Area Agreements and Multi Area Agreements. LSPs involved local government working with other partners “to improve the quality of life in an area and deliver public services more effectively”. Targets were negotiated with central government (generally through the GOs) as a part of the local agreements

The move to combined authorities

From the middle of its period in power, Labour came under increasing pressure from the major cities – led by Manchester – for a greater role in economic development and other areas such as skills and transport.  RDAs began to focus more of their activity on cities, and the government introduced legislation in 2009 to allow the creation of Combined Authorities, These allowed groups of neighbouring local authorities to come together and share responsibilities and powers over a range of services. As such, they effectively recreated the Metropolitan Counties which had been abolished in 1986, and arguably laid the ground for much of what was to follow.  Note, though, that no power was transferred out of Westminster.

The Coalition and Local Enterprise Partnerships

The Coalition stripped away Labour’s regional infrastructure, abolishing GOs (and so removing Whitehall’s regional ‘eyes and ears’), RDAs and LSPs, Then, rather than give economic development responsibilities to local government, it replaced RDAs with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

LEPs are voluntary non statutory bodies bringing together LAs and the private sector to promote economic development. There are 39 LEPs covering the whole of England. Because their boundaries are set to reflect “functional economic areas” they are generally organised on a different geographic basis to local government and also have an unclear relationship with the latter since they must be chaired by, and have at least half of their members drawn from, the private sector.  Following the publication of Lord Heseltine’s report No Stone Unturned in 2012, LEPs were charged with developing Strategic Economic Plans to use as the basis of negotiating “Growth Deals” with government from Local Growth Fund. Details are here

City Deals, Devolution Deals and Mayoral Combined Authorities

Alongside the discussions with the LEPs, the Coalition began negotiations with major cities on a series of 26 Deals that went beyond the purely economic focus of Growth Deals. As Nick Clegg said at the time, the idea was to move “away from a one-size-fits-all model towards individual city deals”

To further complicate the picture, having approved the formation of the first Combined Authority – in Greater Manchester (GM) in 2011- the Coalition began negotiations about devolving further powers (including spatial planning, health and transport) in exchange for a directly elected Mayor. This “Devolution Deal” – generally known as “Devo Manc” – was concluded in November 2014 and led to the creation of other similar Mayoral Combined Authorities, again on the basis of bilateral negotiations. As part of this agenda, Metro Mayors were given statutory powers in 2016

There are currently 8 Mayoral Combined Authorities with a further two agreed in principle. (See this report by the Institute for Government.)  All include an agreement on devolved responsibility for substantial aspects of transport, skills training and economic development.  Some also include housing and planning, business support, employment support and health and/or social care. 

The limitation of the freedoms negotiated in these Devolution Deals is illustrated by two examples, both from Greater Manchester. The first was when HMG withdrew £68m of funding from the GM Combined Authority when the latter reduced its housing targets as part of developing the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan. The second was the very public disagreement between the Mayor (Andy Burnham) and the Government over the amount of support available to businesses in GM as a result of Government imposed Covid restrictions. The Government’s response – a threat to negotiate support packages with individual local authorities in GM – was also instructive.

Civil Service Jobs

Although the Government has undertaken to move some Treasury and other jobs (though not necessarily current officials) out of London, it remains to be seen whether any power and influence accompanies them.  It appears to have no interest in learning the lesson from Government Offices (or, for that matter, from RDAs) about the importance of bringing different Departments together to break down silo modes of thinking. Nor is there any sign that they intend to follow up on Lord Heseltine’s suggestion in No Stone Unturned that relocations should be used to build more strategic capacity in local government.

Delayed White Papers and Disappearing Ministerial Speeches

Local government in England is now a patchwork of different governance models and powers – with a bias towards city regions with an elected Mayor – which does not look sustainable.   Levelling up has not yet developed beyond being a slogan.  City Deals sit alongside Devolution Deals and Growth Deals with much overlap between content, geography and governance. And a recent report pointed out there are now 349 Local Authorities and Combined Authorities with economic powers, sitting alongside 39 LEPs which also have economic powers but with different geographies and lines of accountability.  Moreover, post-2010 austerity means that many LAs have lost the capacity to work outside their statutory responsibilities.

It is also increasingly clear that in some areas – for example transport, environment and planning – there is the need to reinstate at least part of the regional apparatus put in place by Labour.  Recent reports by both IPPR and the  UK2070 Commiission have argued for four new democratically accountable bodies covering the North, the Midlands, the South West and the wider South East.

Michael Gove in his Ditchley Lecture back in July offered an insight into Government thinking on the importance of elected Mayors when he said “we need to look at how we can develop an even more thoughtful approach to devolution, to urban leadership and to allowing communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them. One of the glories of the United States is that there are fifty Governors, all of whom can be public policy innovators”.

The then Minister, Simon Clarke, went even further in a widely reported speech around the same time when he explicitly linked future funding and powers to a reorganisation of local government in England into unitaries and Combined Authorities, all with elected Mayors“This September, the government will … be publishing the Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper…which will lay a clear path for levelling up every region of our country.  The White Paper establishes the framework to fundamentally rewire the role of the state at all levels.”

But it seems that ministers began to realise that giving people like Andy Burnham a voice (even without giving them resources) can cause acute political difficulty.  The Local Government Chronicle reported that most senior ministers had gone cold on the devolution agenda.  There is no sign of the White Paper.  And Mr Clarke’s speech mysteriously disappeared from Government websites(You can however read it here.)

All in all, it is hard to identify any real progress since 1969 when Harold Wilson said, in reference to the Redcliffe Maud report, “It is my hope that the reorganisation of local government will provide an opportunity and the incentive …..for a fresh attack on (this) problem of central financial control”

David Higham

(This guest blog by David Higham (@oldtrotter) was first published by the Constitution Society.)

The Worst Management Fads

The Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway wrote numerous very perceptive columns about the idiocy of much modern management advice.  Here is some of the best of her writing:-

“Harder, by far, than picking the best management ideas of all time is picking the worst. I can think of no other area of expertise to which the word “fad” attaches itself so naturally. No one talks much of economics fads, or accounting fads, but there is something about the word “management” that means the word “fad” is never far away.

In the 20 years that I have been writing about these things, I have seen so many come and go that whittling the list down to the 10 most dismal, most damaging or most daft management fads of all time has been exceptionally challenging.                 

However, here are the ones that, in my view, merit inclusion. The list is in no particular order.

1) Emotional Intelligence. This idea, made popular by Daniel Goleman in 1995 and still very much in vogue almost 20 years later, says that people who can empathise with others do better. It is a heartwarming theory and it would be awfully nice if the world were like this. Alas, the most cursory look around any normal-ish enterprise should be enough to assure us it isn’t. The longevity of this fad tells us a great deal about the power of wishful thinking.

2) Management by Walking Around. This was invented at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and then much favoured by the great guru, Tom Peters. I suppose I can vaguely see the point of it, if the alternative is having managers who never poke their noses out of their offices. However, to expect constant wandering around to have any important effect on anything – apart from paranoia levels of staff and the shoe leather of managers – strikes me as gloriously wrong-headed.

3) Six Sigma. This one is so complicated and contains so many tricky equations that it can only be understood by the most expensive and highly specialised management consultants. As far as I can understand it, Six Sigma is all about isolating and eliminating the causes of defects. There is nothing wrong with that in itself; it makes perfect sense. What is wrong, however, apart from the over-complication of it all, is the fad’s pretentious paraphernalia involving managers becoming “black belts” and “green belts”. It was made big in the mid-1980s at Motorola, but other companies that enthusiastically espoused it quickly became bogged down in endless meetings and found they increasingly had trouble distinguishing wood from trees. It didn’t help their bottom lines either: there was one study that showed the companies that espoused it most religiously trailed the S&P 500 index most markedly.

4) Core Competency. This was an ugly term for something blindingly obvious: that companies ought to concentrate on doing things that they are good at. It is a great idea in theory. But it has two flaws that can make it very dangerous. First, companies often don’t have the first idea what they are good at. And second, there is no point in being good at something if the world doesn’t want it any more. Think of Kodak.

5) There is no “I” in Team. The teamwork obsession started about 20 years ago and is still very much alive. In real life, work is not done by teams, it is done by individuals, a word that does, indeed, contain not one, but three, “I”s.

6) Embracing Mistakes. This is also a fad that was introduced about a decade ago, and is currently at peak popularity. The idea is that only by making mistakes do we learn, and that therefore people should be encouraged to make lots of them. This is one of the nuttiest ideas of all. Excessive fear of getting things wrong can be paralysing, but moderate fear is surely healthy and necessary as it helps ensure that most of the time we get things broadly right.

7) Business Process Re-engineering. This was the craze of the early 1990s, touted by various people including engineer and business writer Michael Hammer. It was all about businesses tearing up their old ways of doing things to make them more efficient. Actually what it turned out to be about was giving lots of work to management consultants, and then firing half the workforce. Thus it got a very bad name and mercifully fell out of fashion.

8) Fun by fiat. Actually it wasn’t really called that. But my name exposes the ridiculous insistence by managers that workers will be more productive if there is a playground slide in reception. The idea originated from two shaven-headed Swedes, Kjell Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle, who in 2000 wrote a book called Funky Business espousing coolness as competitive advantage. Some internet companies still appear to believe in the doctrine, but it can only be a matter of time.

9) Matrix Management. This became big in the 1980s and was possibly the worst way of organising people that anyone has yet come up with. It meant that people with a speciality were all bundled together and then parcelled out ad hoc to work on different projects. The upshot was that everyone had several different bosses and it made office life one long turf battle.

10) Authentic Leadership. Or the idea that everyone must be true to themselves. This idea is not only unspecific, it is sentimental and unrealistic – the whole point of being a manager is that we get to be someone else. However, I was amused to read a very pertinent line on a coaching website: “Authenticity isn’t a fad – it’s a solution.”


This leads naturally to the second white-is-the-new-black theory, which says laziness can be a good thing in a boss. This idea is peddled in Richard Koch’s latest book, The 80/20 Manager.  In it he writes: “Lazy managers achieve exceptional results. Only by being economical with your energy and attention can you make it count when it matters.” He goes on to say that sloth is such a gift that those managers not fortunate enough to have been born with it must work to acquire it.

Mr Koch is right to point out that most of our work is wasted effort; but the trouble is that we have to crunch through the wasted bits in order to get to the worthwhile ones. In real life there are few lazy bosses, since if you are an idle slug you tend not to get promoted. The few that I have met were incompetent, much disliked and generally sacked before long.

Annual Appraisals

I recently saw a statistic saying 825m hours a year are spent conducting annual appraisals. Yet despite this outpouring of effort, I have yet to come across a single person who has changed for the better as a result of one of them.

A system in which people only get evaluated once a year, and then in a way that makes it very hard for anyone to say anything honest, is quite remarkably useless. Yet never are they more useless than when a junior person is judging one more senior, as then the scope for honesty is virtually zero. As almost no one tells the truth, the rare person brave or daft enough to do so is deemed so out of kilter with the corporate culture that their views are instantly discounted.


New bidders for tech contracts often can’t see/understand problems and hence bid lower than established Cos that can – then run into trouble delivering.

Corporate Diplomacy

Second, my experience of big corporations is that flattery is only one of many skills required to do well. Others include diplomacy, hard work, conviviality, deviousness, ambition, ruthlessness and talent.

Large companies are complicated places where people who are emotionally sophisticated can end up doing very well indeed. The traits required for advancement are a mixture of good and bad; and while some companies are more dysfunctional than others, all inevitably require compromises to be made. Egos need to be managed, which inevitably means tiptoeing works better than barging. Yet to dismiss all the skill required in this delicate game as phoney brown-nosing is to miss the point entirely.

It’s OK to Make Mistakes

Last week the chief executive of UBS told all the bankers who work for him that henceforth it was OK for them to make mistakes. A culture in which everyone was petrified of taking risks, Sergio Ermotti said, was not in the interests of the bank or its clients.

How mature, came the response. How refreshing to hear a bank chief acknowledge that risks need to be taken and honest mistakes will sometimes be made.

But it wasn’t mature. It was mad.

In a limited sort of way what he said made sense. The main point about risks is that they are risky — and risky things have a way of going wrong. Places where people get a bollocking for making the slightest slip tend not to be where the best decisions are made.

Yet the answer is not to tell bankers that it is fine to screw up. Mistakes are never OK. And they are particularly un-OK in banking. If I were a UBS client, I would be exceedingly displeased to learn that the bankers to whom I was handing over a king’s ransom were being taught that errors were perfectly acceptable.

This mistake-loving nonsense is an export from Silicon Valley, where “fail fast and fail often” is what passes for wisdom. Errors have been elevated to such a level that to get something wrong is spoken of as more admirable than getting it right.”

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Policy Making

PS – Further Reading

I have distilled my many years of management experience into Leading and Managing Policy Teams. This advice is relevant to those involved in policy-making within the private and not-for-profit sectors, as well as the public sector.


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