News Column

Comment: Passport to chaos: Too-complex government means ministers are failing a key test of power: making things work

June 16, 2014

Mary Dejevsky



For a few months, everything seemed to be coming up roses for the coalition, and if you judge the state of the nation purely from headline economic figures, it still is. Growth is racing ahead, unemployment is at a five-year low, personal debt is stabilising, and consumer spending on almost everything is up. So why is the public mood still sullen?

One obvious reason is the persistence of low pay, and the low productivity and morale that go with it. Maybe, though, there is another answer. Even if the government has cracked the economy, it has failed - despite hopeful signs at the beginning - to crack the question of competence. Since the glorious surprise of the 2012 London Olympics, where everything came in on time and on budget and worked - everything, that is, except the private subcontractors, G4S - Great Britain Inc has been slipping back into its bad old ways.

It's not just Iain Duncan Smith's grand project for universal credit that is running late and mired in the inevitable IT problems. In the past seven days alone we have watched the Home Office, the Department for Education, Birmingham city council and Ofsted all quarrelling about responsibility for the state of schools in majority-Muslim parts of the UK's second city.

We have heard the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, talk of dangerous overcrowding and the potential for unrest in British jails, even as an alarming number of serious criminals have been walking out of open prisons.

More than 700,000 people, we are told, are still waiting for their assessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP), and MPs have been bombarded with complaints from constituents anxious about their holidays because of a backlog of 30,000 passport applications. Nor has the re-designation of the Border Agency as the scarier-sounding Border Force managed to shorten airport queues.

There is an easy explanation for some of this, which you will hear from public sector staff and their trade unions: it's the cuts, only the cuts. And there is a seductive neatness about an argument that links better economic figures with slimmed-down government and deteriorating services.

But this explanation is too easy. When you consider, say, the inquest into Birmingham schools, or the passport backlog, or delays in assessments for PIP, it is not that there are too few people involved in the process, but arguably that there are too many - in the wrong places, doing the wrong things - and fostering a convenient confusion about where the buck stops.

Deregulation and outsourcing are not unique to this government. New Labour was at least as keen on the concept, as a way of introducing private sector efficiency. As so often, though, there have been unintended consequences. What has manifested is an edifice of extraordinary complexity that propagates mini-empires, where those nominally in charge have no real power to make things happen.

Where services have been outsourced, the role of civil servants should have changed, with commissioning and monitoring the primary function. Often this change has not happened, or if it has, civil servants lack the skills or the inclination to meet the new demands (remember West Coast Main Line?).

A limited reversal is under way. An end to the outsourcing of school inspections had already been announced before the Birmingham scandal broke, but it defies belief how anyone ever thought it a good idea. Similarly the delegation of such functions as issuing passports, staffing border controls or running prisons. These are services that form the essentials of government and by which - outsourced or not - that government will be judged.

Competence requires a clear chain of command and well-defined responsibilities. It requires staff who are not afraid to take, and defend, decisions. It means no duplication and no passing things to and fro; it means no papers lost or mislaid. The recent good economic figures testify to competence in one narrow area, but people will not start feeling better until competence in government extends much further down the line.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and former foreign correspondent


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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