Meddle management: A review of ‘A Government that Worked Better and Cost Less?’

Austin Mitchell reviews a new book examining the impact of decades of reform to central government 

By Austin Mitchell

04 Jun 2015

Until relatively recently our governmental machine, largely inherited from Gladstone, Northcote and Trevelyan, worked reasonably well at its basic jobs of running an empire, fighting wars and, later, creating a welfare state. But as society became more pluralistic, problems more complicated and democracy more demanding and obtrusive, the machine began to stutter and stagger. It was more respected and trusted than the politicians who ran it, but was less efficient. Grumbles and complaints multiplied.

This growing dissatisfaction led to constant demands for change and reform.  The top civil servants, a British mandarinate, were pushed into regular changes of function, from policy to delivery, becoming the new midwives. The fashion changed from strong government to light touch, its transactions from manual operation to computerisation, and the mandarins became managers. In their new book, A Government that Worked Better and Cost Less? Evaluating Three Decades of Reform and Change in UK Central Government, Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon attempt to answer a basic question about these processes of constant change and reinvention: did the changes, reshuffles and new approaches do what they promised, and produce a cheaper yet more effective machine?

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It’s difficult to give a straight answer – and impossible to give a simple one ¬– to this apparently easy question. The statistics keep changing, the series aren’t the same, the functions and the roles keep altering and nothing is constant – particularly not the people who run the machine, for ministers and now senior public servants too live in a “here today gone tomorrow” world where they're no sooner settled in than they’re out. The all-wise mandarin running a department for long periods is now a figure from the past in a world of constant, destabilising reshuffles.

Hood and Dixon, nevertheless, make a brave attempt which, because it is an amalgam of their efforts to straighten out inconsistent series and the work of previous partial studies, has all the excitement of a PhD thesis.  Their cautious conclusion, based on comparisons with Scotland and local government, and stated with all due equivocation and every possible reservation, is that “the data examined here broadly seems to point to a more middle of the road conclusion that UK central government ‘cost a bit more and worked a bit worse’ over the thirty years considered here”.

That conclusion, based on a full but complicated analysis of every possible measurement ¬– complaints to Ombudsfolk, audit reports of all kinds, measurement of times and numbers, review of agency work and outsourcing – stands up against every possible reservation, such as the argument that costs and complaints would have risen even more had the reforms not been undertaken, or that social change made it necessary for government to run faster to stand still. On the contrary, what emerges clearly is how much money has been wasted on our overhyped and oversold ICT projects.

As such, the message of this book is clear and simple: don’t believe the messianic idea merchants who tell us that their reforms will put everything right, or that if you make senior civil servants managers and delivery boys rather than policy wonks, all will be well. Cautiously stated, with the usual academic caveats set aside for the quibbler tribe which thrives in universities, the final assessment is that “the heady drumbeat of political and managerial rhetoric surrounding successive makeovers of central government” was – as I’ve long suspected, but our two respectable academic authors couldn’t possibly say – all balls. 

The moral, then, is quit meddling.  Yet with a new crop of proposed “improvements” and changes currently being trotted out, I doubt whether this fine, but very academic, study will be read by enough of the new crop of MPs to prevent further follies in the future.

A Government that Worked Better and Cost Less? Evaluating Three Decades of Reform and Change in UK Central Government by Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon is available from Oxford University Press

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