Tag Archives: consistency

My ongoing love of consistency

How does one get hold of civil servants? I mean, if you don’t have an ongoing relationship on a particular issue, do you start at the top and work your way down, ring reception and ask for the policy area in question, or what?

I work in a relatively narrow field, and my Whitehall contacts are pretty decent, but I was pondering the statement from Eric Pickles last year when he said “Local activism and localism don’t need lobbyists. If local politicians want to change the way government operates, their council should send a letter or pick up the phone”. I’m assuming he doesn’t literally intend that we should all phone him, constantly, so getting through to the right staff would be useful.

That means finding the right person, even assuming that they are willing and able to have a discussion. It’s fine writing a letter to the relevant Minister, or sending over the Leader to have a ‘private chat’, but that’s only properly useful if you can get to the bottom of the issue first, I think, unless it’s something really obvious on which the Government are merely being wilfully obtuse (ask me for a list).

There used to be a publication called the Civil Service Yearbook. I won’t pretend it was the greatest publication in the world, but it was certainly a start. If you met someone but mislaid their card, you could probably track them down. If you had been told a name but no details, you could probably track them down. If you knew the policy area you were interested in, you… get the idea.

Anyway, and I can’t in fairness blame Eric Pickles for this given the date, the Civil Service Year Book ceased publication last year, and is no longer available in print or online. Querying this, I was told that this was because all the information is going to be given away for free (hurrah) so we no longer need to pay for it.

So where is it? Since then, all I’ve been able to find is the site of “Departmental Organograms”, which, well, they’re fantastic if you’re a journalist or noseypoke who wants to know how much people are paid, how many staff they have, or what silly job titles have been made up. If, on the other hand, you want to know the names of staff below Director level, or the phone numbers or e-mail addresses on which you can contact them, you can pretty much get stuffed.

I raised this with a friend in Whitehall today (hence the rant) who tells me that orders have been sent from on high to reduce the number of Government websites, and the amount of information contained on them. Openness and transparency, isn’t it wonderful.

Oh, and yes, we’re fairly rubbish at this in local government as well, I appreciate that, but (in theory at least) Councillors are easier to get hold of (and, crucially) more likely to be able to ask the right officers to look into a resident’s problem than MPs – who aren’t in the same direct relationship with civil servants, who in any case don’t have the same closeness between strategy and operations which still characterises quite a lot of local government work, even in the era of mass outsourcing.

All a bit puzzling

It makes my life easier if the Government abides by a consistent set of principles. When Members ask me what they Government’s doing, or likely to do, I can sort of guess. They don’t have to be ideological principles, they don’t necessarily have to be sensible or coherent. Just something. Obviously that’s harder with a coalition, and obviously when theory meets reality, things fray around the edges.

I get that localism will run into its limits when Councils are doing something that a Minister can get some brownie points on the right for attacking (having a newspaper, paying the going rate for a Chief Executive, paying a lobbyist for advice on how to influence the Government), and that’s fair enough. I get that a passionate commitment to spending cuts in general will fall by the wayside when specific cuts need to be made in Ministers’ constituencies. That’s the game.

What I don’t get, is pretend principles. If you think something is a good idea in a specific case, do it. If you don’t, don’t do it. But don’t invent an overarching principle to justify it if you don’t in fact hold to such a principle. Which is a roundabout way to say that I have been wound up today by trying to reconcile the following.

The Government believes policy advice should be carried out by Departments, not arms length bodies, which makes one wonder what the Office for Budget Responsibility is, since to produce the fiscal numbers that underpin government policy one must assume a certain influence over that policy is inherent in the numbers one produces, but also the Government believes that to provide assurance that the Regional Growth Fund is being put to best use, it is necessary to establish an Independent Approval Panel to advise Ministers on allocations of the Fund.

I suppose it’s potentially a squareable circle, if you separate the policy process rigidly into analysis of the facts (independent), operational decision making (independent) and pure policy decisions (Ministerial/Departmental) – in which case the CRC’s failing was to be set up with an advocate rôle, as well as an evidence-gathering and “rural watchdog” function – its reports not only stated the facts, they made suggestions as to how improvements could be made, and they made them in public.

Of course, deparmental civil servants will also advise Ministers, the only real difference is that they will be more ‘realistic’, more bound into prevailing Government thinking, and, oh, we won’t necessarily find out what they said. Which I suppose I can live with, though it doesn’t seem very ‘open source’. Nor does it help me look wise in front of Members. I could encourage them to spend more time with their MPs, I suppose…