Editorial: The log in Michael Gove's eye

Never mind the NAO; ministers too hate a risk gone wrong

By Matt.Ross

01 Nov 2012

In Michael Gove’s thought-provoking speech on risk and reform, he painted Ed Miliband as a small-c conservative – in counterpoint to reformers like Tony Blair. Government needs “heroes”, he said: people who “welcome the future” such as Teddy Roosevelt and “the great Labour reformer Andrew Adonis”. Treading a path well worn by the PM, Francis Maude and Gus O’Donnell, Gove urged civil servants to be more innovative; and on that narrow point, few would argue with him.

But then he went further, calling the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee the “fiercest forces of conservatism”: they condemn any service failure, he argued, taking no account of the risks integral to innovation. Meanwhile, reformers are obstructed by demands for audits, consultations, impact assessments, “assessing sector feedback” etcetera.

Civil servants might retort that these latter processes can be vital to ensure that your policies are legal, costed, and likely to be effective and deliverable. They might also raise the Department for Transport, where three officials close to the high-profile rail franchise failure have been summarily suspended. According to Andrew Adonis – yes, him again – “blaming junior civil servants in advance of an inquiry” is “disgraceful”, “immoral”, and not how “ministers should conduct themselves”.

Interestingly, the Laidlaw Inquiry’s interim findings – produced by a DfT non-executive director – implicate the department’s “significant reduction in size accompanied by frequent changes of leadership.” The DfT, a trailblazer in implementing the admin budget cuts demanded by ministers, found itself deprived of external advice, short of staff, undergoing a rapid structural change, and experiencing an exodus of senior staff. It then dropped the medicine ball – and under a new transport secretary (the third in a year; weak management continuity isn’t just a civil service thing), the department appears to be blaming the handful of officials who were holding the project when the music stopped.

In fact, Laidlaw’s interim report suggests that the DfT’s failure was partly due to the sheer pace of reform, combined with its readiness to ditch some of the procedures that Gove scorns as time-wasting obstacles. There was no external audit; liaison with the bidders was weak; the department’s bid evaluation process, which introduced “novel risk transfer arrangements”, was “developed late, in a hurry and without proper planning and preparation.” So while Gove rails against time-wasting processes that impede rapid reform, in this case the problems appear to have been over-hasty reform and weaknesses in policy-development processes. And while he blames the NAO and PAC for being intolerant of civil servants’ failure, in this case the officials have been skewered by their own department before the facts were known. We all agree that civil servants must be encouraged and supported to take well-judged risks; but few will be willing to take the leap until their political masters stand ready to catch, rather than to
condemn them.

Matt Ross, Editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

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