Wednesday, February 20, 2008


On the Civil Service 'Generalist'

According to the National Audit Office, Whitehall mandarins, by 2010 will control £678 billion of public spending and mostly without any specific financial training. David Hencke details the extent of the charges: no permanent secretary has a professional financial qualification; six departments have no qualified financial director on their management board; and the MOD, spending £35bn has a financial director also bereft of such letters after his name.

Most of the Sir Humphreys seem have degrees in the arts or the classics, exactly the reality which the 1968 Fulton Report tried to change, but clearly failed. Maybe this explains the many cock-ups reported from Whitehall? Maybe. But I'd like to dissent just slightly from such a view. I did two years in the Civil Service and, whilst I was an unmitigated failure as a potential mandarin, I was able to notice a couple of things about the people who were not. Firstly public service is like no other I have encountered. It is immensely complex, involves public money and takes place in the gaze of parliament and the media. Whatever subject you might have studied at university-Politics, Spanish, Economics- becomes irrelevant as soon as you sip your first cup of Civil Service tea. If any subject is relevant it would be law- something which the graduates of the Ecole Nationale D'Administration tend to take with them into French public affairs with conspicuous success.

Secondly, our high fliers are really, really clever guys- mostly with Oxbridge firsts behind them. They soon adapt to the demands of the job, absorbing massive amounts of information which they can recall in an instant and commanding formidable powers of clear,(though seldom colourful)expression. It matters little what they studied. It's the same with finance. The finances of government departments is mired in the mysteries of estimates and parliamentary votes of funding- studying accountancy or economics at university won't really help anyone much I'd argue.

Thirdly, if such training is to be acquired, it should be 'on the job' study whilst in post. Only in this way can relevant skills be imbued. The 'generalist' approach to public administration has been much pilloried-witness Yes Minister- yet it is probably, on balance, the most appropriate approach to the tasks required. Ministers, after all, are not trained in specific skills- Brown read history and Cameron PPE- and usually, when able- acquire formidable skills in their respective departments after a year or so in post. It may sound old fashioned but I think sheer ability is preferable any day to subject relevant study at university as a preparation for the world of public service.

Hi Skipper,

I'm far from convinced that these high flyers provide the level of expertise that is needed.

Take just two examples. The procurement of IT systems wastes huge amounts of money and by and large the civil service is clueless no only on the procurement, but worse still selecting partners to do it on their behalf. This allows Crapita, EDS et al to run rings around them.

The MOD is a disgrace and Sir Humphrey (and Air Marshal Sir Humphrey) must take the blame. Yes politicians may set the agenda but they do little / nothing to protect front line troops. Where else would you find an organisation that buys helicopters that only fly on sunny days? Just how late is Clansman?

They still fly modified versions of the Comet & VC10!!!!

To refer to a later post, perhaps if Oxbridge took more people from less privileged back grounds we would have more balanced individuals.

Yes they may be clever, but surely they are far from wise men.
What you say makes much sense. Quite right that on IT the government's record is rubbish but whether the mandarins are wholly to blame for this, I'm not so sure. certainly they have to pick up some of the blame tag but ministers too will have had views which they have advanced. On this and the MOD failures- even though I worked for the MOD- I have to confess i'm gobsmacked in the worst possible way. 'Clever' but not 'wise' might be the correct analysis but would, say, mandarins trained in IT have produced better results? And in many instances it's not ministers or civil servants who effectively make the decisions but expensive consultants. Maybe the government needs to establish a special unit on IT, crammed with genuine experts to consider, approve and monitor big IT projects. But cok-ups in UK government have been far too frequent for any complacency i agree.
Just a few minor observations: Studying accountancy at University is no use to anybody whatsoever. People with such degrees do significantly worse in accountancy exams than people with non-relevant degrees. It's a professional CCAB qualification, a combination of theoretical study and on-the-job training that matters. (I trained with the NAO...). I suspect that number is a n underestimate because I know at least one FD in a major department who has taken a 'Senior Officer's' accountancy qualification, which in my opinion is barely worth the paper it's written on.

Also, Fast Streamers are decreasingly likely to be form Oxbridge; many are selected some years after Uni.

However, I agree strongly with the thrust of what you're saying, and wholeheartedly support Andy's comments about procurement. However, procurement isn't generally the responsibility of fast-streamers but of people at a lower level who have some relevant experience or are brought in from outside but at a much lower rate of pay than the industry specialists they are pitted again.

Central Government has to start learning the lessons it has been forcing on Local government for years.
To clarify, "relevant study" at University is pointless for this field.

GDs have many accountants, lawyers etc who have professional on-the-job training to provide specialist advice, but the skills required for policy-making are different. These are the skills learnt in generalist degrees whether they be Biochemistry, French, or indeed Politics, which is about considering different sets of often conflicting evidence, and being able to think independently.

I also believe that actual life experience is important, too. We don't want teachers who have gone into teaching straight from Uni straight from school. And we want administrators who collectively and in aggregate know instinctively about life as it is led by the recipients of policies.
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