Monday, June 16, 2008
The Civil Service, Rockall and Government Competence
Alasdair Palmer's piece yesterday reminded me of my two years in the civil service. Palmer lambasts the appalling waste caused by civil servants' incompetence(e.g. the £2bn tax credits paid to people not entitled to it) not to mention the unnecessary use of hugely expensive consultants(£3bn a year, despite a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee 2007). My little contribution dates to the roll call of incompetence dates back to 1972 when the then Conservative government decided to reinforce British sovereignty over the island of Rockall(see picture) by installing a navigation beacon atop of it. The job of organising the expedition was given to a very junior trainee Sir Humphrey by the name of 'Jones, DS5': i.e. me.
I'm pleased to say the expedition went swimmingly and the beacon was erected courtesy of heroic Royal Marines lowered from a Sea-King helicopter. The next morning, still swelled with pride having watched the event as first item on the BBC six o'clock news, the DTI lighthouse department rang to ask me the date of the expedition to be run the following year. Knowing how the navy chiefs had grumbled like mad, even to do this job, I replied with cries of laughter before asking why such a fantasy event was needed in any case? The beacon, was, after all, established.
'Yes' said the DTI man, 'but how else are you going to change the batteries?
'Batteries?' I yelped, what's all this about batteries?'
'Well, Rockall is a bit too far away to be joined up to the National Grid, you know.'
'Oh I see, yes, well, I'll get back to you on this one.'
The above conversation was repeated several times, complete with pauses and yelps, at various levels in the MOD before it was time for me to leave and work in another section. I later heard that a form of words had been concocted to 'deal with the situation' but I never did find out if those batteries are changed regularly. Whose incompetence was this? My contemporary at the MOD, Clive Ponting, laughed when I told him and said:
'So it was you who is responsible for the Rockall cock-up!'
Maybe I should have asked a question, maybe the DTI should have told us or maybe one of my bosses should have had the prescience to foresee the problem; maybe it was the minister's job to spot it?. But no-one did. These days such a revelation would be blamed squarely on 'government incompetence' but it was just a human lapse by fallible servants of the state. Like so many of these scandals about which we read and about which Palmer writes.
Maybe the whole set-up is wrong. Yesterday's Observer carried a:
'damming assessment of the civil service as a 'desperately overpopulated', 'broken' institution which is stuck in the 19th century has been made by one of its most prominent figures. In an astonishing attack, Zenna Atkins, a director of the Royal Navy Fleet Executive Board, chair of its audit committee and also chair of Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, described the practices of central government as 'utterly antiquated...I could say without doubt that significant parts of the civil service are broken,' she told The Observer. 'The machinery of government is not even in the 20th century, never mind the 21st century.'
Maybe she is right, in fact I suspect she is, but even the most efficient administrators are human and will make errors from time to time.
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