Sue Cameron: Learning the lessons from Whitehall history

Written by Sue Cameron on 6 April 2017 in Opinion

 Attempts to boost officials’ understanding of history are laudable, but will they work?

The great fictional mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby once remarked that the useful life of a government was about 18 months. “The first year,” he said, “is taken up with discovering that they can’t do what they promised in their manifesto. The second year is spent finding out what they can do. Then there are 18 months of useful work. After that, the next election is too close so there follow 18 months of pre-election paralysis.”

The late Tony Jay, co-author of Yes Minister, once told me that ministers had on average not 18 but a mere 11 months to make their mark. The poor gloops would find that their first plan was too expensive, their second would take too long and the third would be too controversial. What ministers ended up doing would be quick, easy, unscrutinised – and more likely than not a textbook example of bad policy.

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There’s a lot of it about. At an Institute for Government seminar in March, David Sainsbury, chairman of the institute and himself a former minister, gave a verdict on Whitehall’s performance that would have come as no surprise to Sir Humphrey or his creator. “It’s a myth,” said Lord Sainsbury, “that Britain is good at policy with just a few minor problems on implementation. We’re very bad at policymaking.”

One example is the way bright young officials – and their ministers – regularly “reinvent” old policies. No sooner has one scheme bitten the dust than a remarkably similar one is launched. Oh – and government departments are periodically closed down and set up again with slightly different names at a minimum cost to the taxpayer of £15m a pop in the first year alone. A recent Cabinet Office report on information management has put the total cost of rehashing old policies as high as £500m.

The results on the ground can be little short of catastrophic. A report by the IfG – All Change: why Britain is so prone to policy reinvention and what can be done about it – looks at several specific areas including further education. In the technical and vocational education field, there have been 48 different secretaries of state in the last 30 years who between them have produced 28 pieces of major legislation and 13,000 different qualifications. Thirteen thousand! How are young people – or businesses – to choose between them? How can students be sure that after a three year course their qualification won’t be abolished?

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in his Budget £500m of funding for a new T-level system designed to cut the 13,000 qualifications down to 15. This is most welcome – in principle. Yet attempts have been made in the past to rationalise technical qualifications with little result. So has the civil service done its history homework this time?

The question is crucial. One reason for endlessly recycling failed, old policies is that to a large extent Whitehall has lost its institutional memory. Sir Nicholas, now Lord, Macpherson became acutely aware of this when he was Treasury permanent secretary: “The two words that caused me most pain when I was at the Treasury were ‘radical reform,’” he said at the launch of the IfG report. “Government is a young person’s game and people get spat out after a couple of years. It all encourages government by announcement and an attitude that says everything the previous administration did is crap and this time it will all be different.” The civil service, he added, was “very unhistorical”.

There are moves to cure Whitehall’s institutional amnesia. During the 2007/8 crash Macpherson and the Treasury team studied the 1976 IMF crisis to see what lessons could be learned. They brought in some of the main players such as the late Douglas Wass who had been HMT’s top official at the time. Today the Strand Group, run by Kings College London where Macpherson is a visiting professor, holds regular seminars and one of the express aims is to boost Whitehall’s institutional memory. The Foreign Office has its own, excellent history section and the Cabinet Office has been producing official histories, most recently on cabinet secretaries.

All this is good stuff. But is it enough – and can government as a whole be persuaded to take history more seriously? Word is that the Cabinet Office wants to end its official history series and farm the work out to individual departments. This could be an innovative new approach or just another cost-cutting wheeze. The record is not good. The Treasury’s only contribution to the 1976 IMF cost cuts was the axing of its history department!

The IfG is calling for officials to be kept in the same posts for longer. It also wants senior policy people made responsible for ensuring there is a full understanding of past policy work. These are laudable suggestions but are they realistic? Even if Whitehall could pay more to keep staff in the same posts for longer, today’s high fliers will still want to move on in search of fresh opportunities or to work abroad or explore the private sector. The days when civil servants stayed in their “home” departments for decades are gone.

The good news is that finally Whitehall is beginning to wake up to the importance of historical perspectives.

About the author

Sue Cameron is a writer and broadcaster concentrating on politics, parliament and Whitehall

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