It is a very human impulse to cling tight to the idea that someone, somewhere surely must know something.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking about bluffers this past few weeks, because I’ve got a book to plug. (Despite it not being about Brexit, Fortnite or Trump, it’s sold almost 40 copies). One thing I’ve learned is that many people assume that the civil service are still the ones most likely to be in the know. Politicians were long since written off as a shower of chancers tap-dancing on quicksand. Journalists are no better. But stodgy old Whitehall is surely at least muddling through. Those know-alls will know all.
Interestingly, this belief holds firm even in the face of disappointment. Some folks prefer to think that the delays, frustrations, impersonal letters and obtuse jargon they encounter in their less pleasant dealings with the state are a result of actively malign officialdom. Brexit has brought this conspiratorial narrative to a boil in the more fervid corners of the press.
Well, call me naive, but I still doubt The Man is out to deliberately get at people. I’ve met a good few of the men and women who are The Man. In my experience, collectively The Man can’t always be trusted to put his trousers on the right way. Nonetheless, for many people it is psychologically preferable to imagine that those who have control over us are vindictive, but at least knowledgeable with it.
Yet the civil service’s relationship with knowledge is peculiar. To understand it, it’s worth making a distinction between two types. First, there is policy knowledge. This is about understanding the history, geography, psychology and economics that inform the bountifully diverse business of government: corporation tax, school exams, space law, livestock movement, and so on to the horizon. When most people talk about officials knowing about stuff, this is what they mean.
However, there’s a second type of knowledge. You could call it mandarin studies. This is all about understanding the way things are done around here. The civil service has its own rich and complex rituals, and is brilliant at preserving them. So good, in fact, that you can read books written about Whitehall that are more than 50 years old (and I’m afraid I do) to find tales told of virtually identical behaviours, language and challenges to those that still crop up today.
The peculiarity is that although even people paying close attention on the outside of government assume that the civil service spends more of its time worrying about the first kind, from the inside, there’s plenty to suggest that in fact more value is placed on the second.
An echo of this is the grading system. Britain was unusual in having a conspicuously separate senior civil service, a habit it passed on to some former colonies. The First Division was deliberately built according to the same philosophy as officers and men in the armed forces; separate training for separate jobs. In these more egalitarian times, the divide is no longer signified by the quality of one’s office carpet, but the echoes remain. By and large Grade 6 remains the graveyard of deep experience, operational smarts or niche policy knowledge; if you really know your stuff, this is where you will at best end up.
From that point upward, the further you rise in the hierarchy of government, the less you need to know about the policy area you are responsible for, but the more you need to know about the organisation you are piloting. There are exceptions to the rule of bounded experts above the SCS dividing line — a Chief Scientist here, a Chief Economist there, a CTO perhaps — who are the guardians of a third kind of expertise; disciplinary knowledge. They get a seat at the table, but unless they’re prepared to sacrifice their chosen discipline’s intimate connection to a specific policy area — energy, say — for the sake of department hopping, Director is where they will settle.
The apparatus for preserving policy knowledge is considerably ropier than that of preserving mandarin studies. The latter is bound up in informal networks of peers, centrally run by Cabinet Office and reinforced by a regular Faststream intake who are moulded into future SCS. Most of it isn’t written down as such, but then, it doesn’t need to be. Government is a people business, not an ideas business.
Deep policy knowledge used to live in people’s heads too, but it was backed up by departmental libraries. These days it gets stuffed into knowledge management systems, which are — without exception — worse than awful. They tend to have name that sound like knock-off energy drinks, and come with mandatory training to teach everyone how to use it, just like Google doesn’t. If you want to make sure no-one can find any evidence of what your team has been up to, leave it in the knowledge management system. It’ll be safe there until the system’s eventual replacement accidentally deletes everything.
The civil service isn’t alone in prioritising mandarin studies or some version of it in its people and processes — many large, old organisations do — but few do it as well as Whitehall. It is a credit to the commitment of successive generations that this huge organisation’s folklore and superstition has been passed down so faithfully, like nursery rhymes. The troubling question is why it has taken less good care of its valuable policy knowledge.
It is this problem that has led some — well, OK, me — to describe many in the senior ranks of the civil service as bluffers. That doesn’t mean they don’t know things. Far from it. It means their mandarin study is far more refined than their policy knowledge, and it is upon that strength they have risen. But because the expectations of the world outside Westminster is for them to know about their policy, they appear to be busking. If people think you don’t know what you’re talking about, they don’t care all that much about how you talk about it.
I worry that the depth of policy knowledge may be dissolving in important corners of Whitehall, as experience walks out the door and systems fail to preserve it. And when anyone begins losing their memory, they tend to cling harder to things they can remember — in this case, the rituals and behaviours grooved hard into the institutional psyche. Are they fit for purpose? I’m sure somebody looked into that very question in the 1960s. If only I could find the report in the system.