Thursday, October 11, 2007

 

Extravagance and the Public Service

When I worked ingloriously and briefly as a Whitehall civil servant, I was struck by how penny pinching it was. If you wanted a new ball point pen you had to take the empty plastic tube to the stationary room and you'd be given a refill. If you wanted a new toilet roll, you had to surrender the cardboard tube to qualify. Things like rugs, mirrors and pictures on the wall were awarded strictly on the basis of rank. Senior Executive Officer? You can have a rug;Principal? You can have that mirror. Just one of the petty restrictions which convinced me after two years that this was not the place for me.

I had read about the alleged extravagance of Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, in Private Eye over the last few months and now we see the mainstream press have taken it up, though, I note, without any acknowledgement to the Eye. I was especially interested as Sir John was my boss during my last six months in the job where I worked for the MOD in the Navy Department. I have to say I had huge respect for the man. Intellectually he was in the top echelon: writing his LSE doctorate on Hegel during his first two years in Whitehall, composing some of it while he commuted on the Tube. All I could do on such journeys was try and survive their awfulness let alone unravel the mysteries of possibly the most difficult philosopher of them all.

As a boss he was endlessly solicitous and helpful to a struggling young officer and one of the chief reasons persuading me to stay and try to make my life within government service. I would have cited him as evidence against Peter Oborne's new book The Triumph of the Political Class in which he argues that the long tradition of 'integrity and duty' in public life is being replaced by 'casual corruption, venality, nepotism and mendacity'. Never have I met a man more decent and honourable or more committed to advancing the public good.

So I was dismayed to read of the accusations of extravagance-a third of a million pounds on travel over the last three years and £27K on meals- levelled against him. No doubt top officials are entitled to travel first class, but quite so often and with their wives? And all those meals in the very best restaurants? I wasn't able to acquire new biros or bog rolls with as much apparent ease. I do hope the allegations prove to be misdirected.

Comments:
Just in case it gives me an opportunity to make a cheap political point - who was in government when you experienced this austere if fiscally more responsible public sector?
 
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