Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

How to be a Civil Servant – Fourth Edition

I am delighted to announce that the fourth edition of my book ‘How to be a Civil, Servant’, is now available on Amazon.

It will be ideal summer reading for those thinking of entering the next Fast Stream competition as well as for those joining the civil service this autumn.

The book will also provide invaluable information and advice for the many 2020 recruits who have mainly worked from home and so unable to learn from working closely with colleagues at all levels, including ministers’ offices.

The book has been launched at an introductory price of only £8.95 which will idc revert to the recommended price of £12.99. The Kindle edition is only £5.00. These prices are bound to increase over the coming months, so I strongly recommend buying now!

The book was first published in 2000 and has remained popular ever since. The latest edition contains corrections through to March this year, including Brexit. It contains easy to follow advice on:

  • Giving advice to Ministers
  • Effective communication, including …
    • briefing and speech writing
  • Parliamentary questions etc.
  • Ethics, including …
    • civil service impartiality
  • The policy process
  • Leadership & management
  • Project management

The book also provides great background reading for students, academics, journalists, politicians and anyone with an interest in the inner workings of the British government.

Please do review the book on Amazon – especially if you want to recommend it!

Please email me of you would like to order four copies or more of the paperback, for even lower prices.

Martin Stanley

Let’s Not Give The PM More Power

There is some very good stuff in the ‘Four Steps for Reform report’ recently published by the Commission for Smart Government. It is genuinely a ‘government reform’ document, and not just ‘civil service reform’.

I recommend and can hardly improve on Alex Thomas’ commentary on the report, published by the IfG. Alex particularly applauds the fact that the commission recognises that it is time to treat ministers, civil servants and officials across the wider public sector less as separate tribes and more as fellow professionals who have different roles in serving the public. And he is right, I think, when he says that few would mourn the loss of cabinet committees if they were to be replaced with a more effective oversight, co-ordination and implementation group.

But the Commission’s headline recommendations are very dangerous.    They want to create

  • a ‘powerful’ new prime minister’s department, sitting alongside …
  • a Ministerial Centre, bringing all ministers’ together in one building, away from their officials, and including …
  • a new Treasury Board charged with the Treasury’s current spending responsibilities and operating a ‘Plan for Government’ replacing the current spending review.

This feels even worse than Presidential government.  It creates a corporate centre where everyone would focus on the wishes of the Prime Minister/Chief Executive.  Individual ministers would be detached from their departmental experts who know what is happening on the ground – and so will be much less likely to challenge the PM.  The Chancellor would no longer be able to challenge crazy spending decisions. And the Prime Minister would have strong enforcers in his/her own enlarged department.

The Commission’s underlying assumption seems to be that the current government’s failures (Covid, Brexit implementation, social care?) can be blamed on over-mighty departments resisting the clear, carefully considered and sensible leadership from No.10.   I readily accept that Cabinet Government hasn’t worked well – or hardly at all – since 2016.  But that is surely because of excessive centralisation of power. Theresa May famously worked in near total isolation from her colleagues.  (Chancellor Hammond never saw key speeches before she made them.)  And Boris Johnson deliberately appointed Cabinet ministers who could be relied upon never to challenge him. 

The Commission has come up with some sensible sounding – radical even – ideas for improving the way in which different parts of government work together.  Like the IfG, I hope that these are taken seriously.  But please don’t let us give Prime Ministers any more power than they have now.

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Government

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

Professional Detachment and the Civil Service

The recent Social Mobility Commission report on the civil service found that civil servants from disadvantaged backgrounds are significantly under-represented in the Civil Service.  Even when they ‘get in’ they struggle to ‘get on’.  These two excerpts from the report are particularly interesting:

‘Emotional detachment and understated self-presentation are seen as the behavioural hallmarks of senior civil servants, perhaps in contrast to their political leaders. But this ‘neutral’ behaviour can be both alienating and intimidating for those from working class backgrounds.

‘The key behavioural code at the top-grades of the Civil Service revolves around mastery of ‘studied neutrality … This incorporates …  an emotionally detached and understated self-presentation.’

Why would those from a working class background find neutrality so alienating?  Is it less because of their ‘class’ and more because they have not been exposed, as children, to ‘professional’ behaviours?

Lawyers, doctors and teachers (and no doubt other professions) cannot be fully effective if they become emotionally involved with their clients, patients or students. Many professions prohibit such involvement via their professional codes.  Civil servants are similarly required by the Civil Service Code to be strictly impartial in the way in which they carry out their day-to-day duties, and in particular to be politically impartial. This has at least three interesting consequences which might bear on social mobility within SW1.

First, professionals are often not very good managers.  Successful professionals have very different characters from successful business people – and from the armed forces.  Business and military goals are relatively clear and not to be questioned.  Leaders in these spheres must have strong organisational, project management and person management skills.  And it helps if they have (or can pretend) passionate commitment to their business or country.  Professionals, in contrast, are devoted to helping others to succeed whether in business or in hospital or in government.  The best will be lauded by their clients etc. and their peers, but they don’t need to be great managers, and most of them aren’t.

The relative absence of management skills amongst professionals is all too obvious in hospital and schools where managers are nowadays employed in significant numbers alongside their professional colleagues.  This creates tensions which are sometimes disastrous but the resultant teamworking can lead to exceptional results, as has been seen in many hospitals’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The civil service has yet to pull off this trick.  It preferentially promotes ‘the emotionally detached’ compared with committed managers.  The previous and current Cabinet Secretaries had no significant management experience but were/are consummate courtiers and fixers, and so hugely appreciated by their political masters. 

Some departments, such as Defence, DWP and HMRC, do seem to have great managers at or near the top.  Others are not so lucky.  And recruits from working class non-professional backgrounds quickly find that they are at a disadvantage in policy-heavy departments compared with the sons and daughters of lawyers and medics who have lived with professionally-detached parents for most of their lives.

Civil Service impartiality has a second consequence.  New governments arrive in their new offices all too aware that their key professional advisers were only yesterday working for what is now ‘Her Majesty’s Official Opposition’.  Ministers are then reminded every so often that politically impartiality means that there is a limit to how helpful their officials can be. 

The same does not apply to doctors, teachers and lawyers.  We don’t, of course, expect them to go home and lose sleep every time a patient dies, a child fails to fulfil its potential, or a client ignores professional advice.  But we do expect professionals always to be ‘on our side’.  This is in stark contrast to central government where, as the next election approaches, ministers become very aware that almost everyone around them might soon be working (again?) for the Opposition. 

Successive governments have found an answer by recruiting special advisers who have in most cases worked very affectively alongside their civil service colleagues.  (It is a huge shame that the exceptions have hit the headlines, and that recent recruitments seem to have focussed too much on spin doctor skills.)  Many departments have also recruited experts, including from business, who have made huge contributions.  These successes are seldom noticed outside Whitehall.

Looked at the other way, however, maybe civil servants recruited from non-professional backgrounds find it difficult to pretend impartiality, and maybe this damages their career prospects as they climb through the ranks and work more closely with ministers?

The studied neutrality and emotional detachment of senior civil servants has another, third, consequence which I find more worrying.  They should, and most normal people would, get angry and upset when things go wrong.  But Dominic Cummings correctly notes that “it’s amazingly rare to find people who *deeply care about results* at senior levels in politics/gvt, those who do are seen as mad/unreliable & are weeded out”.  As a result, senior officials (and their ministers’) response to Windrush, Grenfell Tower, the social care crisis etc. is to play it long, to worry about political consequences, and to save money.  (The Treasury’s, HMRC’s and DWP’s responses to Covid were honourable exceptions.)  

Ministers, meanwhile, are also understandably focussed on self-preservation when things go wrong.  ‘It wasn’t my fault’ is their first response, whilst putting things right then takes political energy and financial resources, both of which are in short supply.  Ministers love mandarins who can help them defend their barricades until the media circus has swept on.   

I wish I could point to a solution to this problem.  The obvious difficulty is officials who are genuinely passionate find it difficult to work for those politicians who are more focussed on their political career than on improving society.  Ministers (and Dominic Cummings) meanwhile find it difficult to work with officials who do not share their political passions.  And I suspect that civil servants from non-professional backgrounds find it more difficult to disengage from the real issues and so, to some extent, resent having to pretend neutrality and support ministers obsessed with short term political pressures. 

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

[This is a slightly amended version of a blog that was first published by the Bennett Institute at Cambridge University.]

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.


The Inspector’s Dilemma

[This blog was first published by Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy.]

The modern world is full of inspectorates of various kinds, all with subtly different roles and responsibilities.  But they all face the same dilemma.  The more they give helpful advice, and the more they offer opinions, the more they become responsible for the decisions of their regulated entities.

One version of the dilemma arose in the early days of the railways, and led to a great debate between George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Stephenson argued for government oversight of new railways, fearing ‘wild and visionary schemes being tried at the great danger of injury or loss of life to the public’.  Brunel opposed any form of government interference and reckoned that his enginemen did not ‘obtain the slightest knowledge of instructions by reading them’.

The resultant Regulation of Railways Act 1840 met Stephenson’s concerns by establishing the Railways Inspectorate which had wide powers of inspection.  But Brunel’s concerns ensured that the Inspectorate had no other powers.  They could do nothing beyond deploying their powers of persuasion if they found that a new railway had not been built to a safe standard.  The government of the day felt that powers to enforce Inspectors’ recommendations would result in the unwelcome (to the government) result that the management of the railways would be taken out of the hands of the companies’ directors. Responsibility for safety would instead be placed fairly and squarely upon the Inspectorate and the Board  of Trade.

This compromise faced one of its most severe tests in the Tay Bridge disaster.  The bridge had been inspected by a Railway Inspector in 1878 when he supervised a successful crossing by six engines all coupled together  – but he had expressed concern about the effect of strong winds when a train was crossing.  In the event, a fierce gale in December 1879 destroyed the bridge and a crossing train, killing over 70 passengers.

It will have been little consolation to the passengers’ relatives that the subsequent Board of Inquiry concluded that the Board of Trade could not and should not be held responsible for the designs of railway structures.  As a practical matter, the Board would have to employ large numbers of qualified staff, duplicating those employed by the industry.  But also “… the result would be to check and control the enterprise which has done so much for this country , and to substitute for the real responsibility which rests on the railway engineer the unreal and elusive responsibility of a public office … to say nothing of the necessary evils of double management.”

Avoidable serious accidents continued until railway safety regulation was at last recognised as inadequate following the privatisation of the railway industry, and the Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield accidents.  Here is an extract from an HSE report (emphasis added):

“[The Inspectorate] has followed a consensus-seeking approach … with a reluctance to use formal enforcement powers.  The ‘light touch’ approach was derived during a political climate of deregulation … Such an approach is less appropriate for an industry which is more driven by commercial imperatives and in which levels of co-operation and trust appear to be declining.”[1]

And so we come to another 72 deaths following the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower by an industry very much “driven by commercial imperatives and in which levels of co-operation and trust appear to be declining”.  It is already striking that the contractors and sub-contractors claim not to have any responsibility for ensuring that their insulation and cladding systems complied with building regulations.  Rydon told the Inquiry that it was content to rely on building control inspectors to check for fire safety issues and “we did regard it as building control’s responsibility to raise concerns”[2].  And Harley Facades said its view was that it was for Building Control to check that products complied with regulations[3] .

What can we learn from these stories? 

First, although inspectorates can encourage good management, a lot depends on how they go about their task.  By ‘passing’ a practice or standard as acceptable, they can too easily (though inadvertently) reduce the ambition, innovation, responsibility and accountability of managers whose practices they have ‘passed’.  “As long as ‘they’ (the inspectors) are happy, why should we worry?”  This problem was exacerbated, in the case of Grenfell, by the fact that local authority Building Control was competing for work with private sector inspectors.

It follows that when regulators carry out effectiveness reviews they should ensure that those they regulate clearly understand their inalienable responsibility for ensuring the safety of those who use their products and services. 

The second lesson, surely, is that regulators must be properly funded.  Most businesses may not need frequent inspections, but the occasional criminals and ‘chancers’ can do huge harm – and will do so unless faced with energetic prosecution and/or enforcement.  It is worrying, therefore, that recent governments have reduced the resources available to regulatory bodies, typically by around 50% in real terms.[4] 

Reductions in regulatory etc. budgets was prepared by

These savings looked like false economies even before Grenfell Tower.  Politicians have subsequently been distracted by Brexit and COVID.  Let’s hope that, as normality reappears, there is a sensible review of the resources available to these vital organisations. 

Martin Stanley
Editor, Understanding Government and Understanding Regulation

[1] The information about railway regulation is taken from Ian Prosser and David Keay’s history of the Railway Inspectorate.
[4] The chart showing reductions in regulatory etc. budgets was prepared by .

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