Saturday, April 22, 2023

In the light of the Dominic Raab story, a civil servant writes…

I’ve been a civil servant for more than thirty-six years, and thus am rather nearer to the end of my “career” than the beginning. But, whilst my personal ambition has been limited, my belief in the power and value of public service remains undimmed. After all, I’m clearly not doing it for the money…

Now I ought to preface what comes next with an admission that I don’t know what happened between Dominic Raab and his civil servants. As someone who believes in due process and the rule of law, I tend to acceptance of the findings of independent reports and thus, if it was found that his behaviour was inappropriate, I lean towards the idea that it probably was.

But I’d like to mull over the relationship between politicians and civil servants, predominantly because, if all is well, a mutually respectful relationship between the two is more likely to lead to good governance and better decision making. Now I should emphasise that, by that phrase, I don’t mean “policy that I like and agree with”. No, governance is more nuanced than that.

The best “rule of thumb” for the relationship is “politicians decide, civil servants advise”. If a politician, particularly a minister, wants to do something, the role of the Civil Service is to determine how it might be delivered, what legislative change (if any) is needed, and what the possible consequences are. If the proposal is currently illegal, or will negatively impact on some, that should be explained, preferably with whatever evidence exists. That isn’t about opposition or obstructionism, it’s about offering a decision maker the information needed to make what they (the decision maker) believe to be the best choice from the available options.

In return, politicians need to be open to the possibility that their ideas might be flawed, unworkable or illegal. That requires, a sense of mutual respect that entertains the notion of honest doubt.

Increasingly, in recent years, politicians have blamed the Civil Service for the difficulties they encounter in making the sorts of systemic changes they believe to be necessary. They refer to “the Blob”, or to “the Establishment”, accuse civil servants of balking their pet projects, anything rather than admit that, when push came to shove, their demands couldn’t be met because the consequences of action were rather worse than the status quo. Thus, if a politician starts from the premise that his or her officials are a problem rather than the means to a potential solution, that suggests an ongoing relationship based on confrontation rather than collaboration. It’s not likely to end well.

Civil servants can’t really push back. For one thing, there is an ultimate acknowledgement that the politicians have a mandate and a basic right to make decisions as to how the country is run. The second is that we mostly operate under a set of guidelines that discourage open debate and are covered by the Official Secrets Act. And, ultimately, we still respect the fact that a politician, with a personal mandate, has certain rights and obligations that we as civil servants don’t.

So, if Dominic Raab had high standards, that’s fine. We want higher standards in government. If his management style was such as to distress his staff, then we have an obvious problem.

If you’re being criticised for doing your job as an advisor, you may stop offering information that your minister isn’t going to like, or soft-pedal that information so that it might not be seen to carry as much weight. That leads to unbalanced information in the hands of a decision maker and thus the risk of error in policy making. And given that all decisions in government have consequences, it might reasonably be concluded that the consequences of decisions made without all the facts are likely to be worse for all concerned.

It has been suggested that politicising the upper tiers of the Civil Service, in a similar manner to the way things are in the United States, would engender a more responsive bureaucracy. I suspect that, if you allow Ministers to appoint people who share the same beliefs, and who are entirely beholden to the Minister, the prospects of receiving independent advice become much lower, and you create a chasm between those who advise and those who deliver what is decided. You’d also reinforce the very suspicions that politicians have of their officials if an incoming government is welcomed by senior officials directly appointed by their political opponents.

So, to summarise, for good governance to flourish, there must be mutual respect between those involved in the process of governance and policy making. The Dominic Raab report appears to suggest that, at least in his case, that mutual respect wasn’t there, and his response to it doesn’t indicate that self-awareness has been triggered yet. If he intends to return to government any time soon, it might help him if he takes some time to reflect on what led so many civil servants to complain about him and why some political observers have characterised him as angry and slightly psychotic.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Federal Council: “Kind Hearts and Coronets” but without the murder…

One of the things about narrowly losing a Federal Committee election is that you’re potentially on standby to step in if a successful candidate implodes, resigns or, tragically, dies. Indeed, that’s how I found myself back on Federal International Relations Committee two years ago, after Jonathan Fryer’s sad demise. And that was not the only such loss, as FIRC Vice-Chair, Ruth Coleman-Taylor passed away last year. I miss both of them, if truth be told.

But given how close I got to being elected to Federal Council last year, and given the number of directly elected members, I had the sense that, merely by remaining a Party member in good standing, I might yet find myself promoted. And so it has come to pass, following the resignation of Alison Eden, first from the Party and then consequentially as a member of Federal Council. I won’t comment on the background to that saga, as I only know what happened as opposed to why, but it may not have come as much of a surprise to those involved.

There will be some catching up to do, and some cultural acclimatisation - every committee has its own rhythm in my experience and I’ve found it more effective in the past to simply go with it rather than fight it. But the Chair, Antony Hook, is someone I know and have worked with in the past, and the rest of Federal Council are, for the most part, people I have worked with in one of the myriad of roles I have performed over forty years of lyric bureaucracy within the Party.

I’ve swapped messages with Antony, discovered that there is a Federal Council Slack group, put the date of our next meeting in my diary and now await my first set of papers. In the meantime, I suspect that an induction pack might be coming - there was one when I rejoined FIRC - and I ought to read the constitutional stuff to refresh my memory of what it is I’m supposed to do.

I am kind of looking forward to a new challenge, and am optimistic that the skills I’ve picked up in my multiple roles in the Town and Parish Council sector will stand me, and my colleagues in good stead for the next three years or so.

So, wish me luck as I wave you hello…

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

They call him the Count… because he can’t…

My degree, for what it’s worth, is in Mathematics (with Statistics), and I am, by most people’s standards, highly numerate. This allows me to look at Rishi Sunak’s announcement that the Government is going to raise standards of maths skills with a soup├žon of scepticism.

I’ve always been of the view that, at the level confronted by most people, maths skills are as much about confidence as they are about technique. I encounter people who will throw their hands up and declare how bad they are at it and yet, if given the time and space to work through a calculation, will come up with the right answer.

There is a sense that, with the advent of calculators and, these days, calculators in smart phones, that the ability to add up, multiply, divide and subtract is obsolete, although I’d argue that, without a basic grasp of numbers, the risk of missing a typing error is higher than I’m comfortable with. My confidence in my numeracy skills means that, if I make a data entry error, I’m likely to spot it before it becomes critical.

But Rishi’s announcement does have a feel of John Major’s national cones hotline about it, but without the same potential viability. We already have a chronic shortage of mathematics teachers and a recruitment and retention crisis due to uncompetitive salary scales, and the announcement glosses over these issues without offering any sense of what might be done to remedy them. Indeed, it suggests that whilst young Sunak understands how government should work, the reality of how things actually are escapes him.

In fairness to him, he has no real experience of actual service delivery, so perhaps I should be as troubled by the fact that his Secretary of State for Education doesn’t appear to have pointed out the flaws in his announcement, nor any member of the Cabinet. But then, there’s not much sense of practical awareness  amongst most of them either.

The irony is that, in isolation, the idea of boosting maths skills is a thoroughly good thing but making an announcement to deliver an outcome when the resources required to deliver it simply don’t exist merely reminds us that Conservative government doesn’t add up. Perhaps the subtraction of hundreds of Conservative councillors next month might suggest a solution in 2024…

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Procession, peanuts and policy…

Crossing the High Street with care

It was the Needham Market Civic Service yesterday and, in my capacity as Chair of one of its neighbouring Parishes (but mostly as Ros’s husband), we were part of the formal party. That requires us to process up the High Street from the Community Centre to the Parish Church for the service.

I’m sure that, in past years, the High Street was closed and we processed down the middle of the road, Mayors of the surrounding towns in their regalia and robes, their Consorts by their side but it all seemed rather more low key this time. We walked on the pavement, crossing the High Street at the pelican crossing and then entering the church. Progress, I guess.

There was a nice tea afterwards, and I caught up with Steve Phillips, one of our retiring District Councillors, putting our very small part of the world to rights.

These sorts of things feel rather cozy, but perhaps they act as a reminder of an era of civic pride which is increasingly anachronistic in a world where such things are frowned upon as old-fashioned and rather fusty. I do get that - how does it help the community and does it put newcomers off? - but tradition has its place, particularly in terms of community cohesion in rural and semi-rural communities. And in Suffolk, where what are now relatively small towns were once of national significance, these events are an anchor to its proud past.

Perhaps it’s regret, or perhaps I’m simply getting older and mistily nostalgic, but I’d be sorry to see these things fade out of existence…

Pay peanuts, get?…

So, apparently the Civil Service pay remit suggests an increase in paybill of 4.5% for 2023/24, compared to inflation at 10%. Pay levels are now so low at clerical grades that they’re being swept up with the National Living Wage. And yes, that means that the person you rang to ask about your tax problem is earning the same hourly rate as the person stacking shelves at your local supermarket.

And when even broadsheet journalists are noting the vast discrepancies between Civil Service pay rates and those for private sector companies competing for the same skill levels, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that the sort of person who might altruistically opt for public service rather than private profit becomes increasingly rare.

You get the government you pay for, I’m afraid to say.

A resolution (or forty-three) to consider

I admit that my one remaining function as a Liberal Democrat - member of the Party’s delegation to ALDE Party Council - is mostly far less onerous than many of the posts elected by the Party membership. After all, going to six meetings over a three year period isn’t exactly going to kill me. It isn’t cheap - the meetings have been held in cities such as Yerevan, Bratislava, Palermo and Dresden, to name but four - but it is intensive, with a whirlwind of activity in the weeks leading up to the events.

This time, we seem to have had far more resolutions to consider - whereas it’s usually no more than twenty, it’s over forty this time. Our delegation has to consider them both in their own right but by comparison to Party policy - you really wouldn’t want us to be freelancing on potentially controversial issues here at home.

I’d better start reading, I guess…

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Creeting St Peter: hail to the Chief?

In recent times, the period around the close of nominations for local elections has been slightly more fraught than for most people. As a serving councillor, the concerns come in two parts:
  • can I successfully submit my nomination papers?
  • am I actually going to have to fight an election?
The second question is, I admit, more of a Parish and Town Council thing - principal authority elections are seldom uncontested - as many contests… aren’t.

Having handed in my nomination papers in person on Tuesday morning and had them vetted by Mid Suffolk’s Head of Election Services, I was pretty confident that I had been validly nominated (and how embarrassing would it be if an “out” bureaucrat screwed that up?). All that was left was to await the formal publication of candidates.

Having clicked on the link on the Mid Suffolk website yesterday afternoon, I was somewhat surprised to find that the total number of Town and Parish Council contested elections was… one. And it wasn’t Creeting St Peter.

And so, I am gloriously re-elected. Four years ago, I noted that it wasn’t so much an endorsement of my ability and hard work as a sitting councillor as a sense that I wasn’t annoying anyone enough to provoke a challenge. I suspect that this is less the case now after more than four years as Chair, including over the pandemic. People appear to know who I am and what I do, which is nice, and events of the past year have demonstrated that the role isn’t as easy as my colleagues think I make it look.

I even delivered upon the goals I set four years ago. The street lights have been replaced at far lower cost than I had feared (thanks must go to the County Council for offering us an exceptionally good deal) and the emergence of village Facebook and WhatsApp groups has allowed me to convey useful and/or important information to most village residents quickly and efficiently.

So, what are my aims for the next four years? It would be nice to support our Parochial Church Council in raising additional funds to refurbish the Church Room, and the recent discovery that they could apply for Section 106 funding is very encouraging. We also would like to improve our playground, especially given that we have a surprising number of small children in the village.

I’d also like to finish off the job of dragging Council into the twenty-first century in terms of how it operates. The appointment of a new Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer was a big leap in that project, but the work is still ongoing. As Chair, if they’ll continue to have me, that does put an onus upon me to actively engage rather than just acquiesce but that might not be a bad thing.

So, another four glorious years are launched. Maybe I ought to crack open a bottle of champagne?…