Sunday, January 18, 2009
Does a "Government of All Talents" Work?
My question I guess might be answered in the negative by Digby Jones(pictured right), the former CBI supremo who was elevated into a Busines Minister before retiring at the last reshuffle. He has criticised civil servants for never having to work under the threat of the sack, when so many of them deserve it. Former Trade Minister and BP boss Lord Simon-elevated by Tony Blair and pictured left- gave an interesting Radio 4 interview to Peter Riddell last Saturday (18th Junuary) in the Week at Westminster slot. Simon reckoned there were four roles such a minister had to perform:
i) Executive: such a minister has to formulate policy and administer his department in concert with his civil service staff. Given that GOAT appointments often involve people of proven track record in running big organisations, one would hope that this is a role in which such 'incomers' would thrive.
ii) Parliament: junior ministers in the Lords, where so many such appointments are made, have an important job in standing at the Lords Despatch Box and arguingthe case for new legislation. Simon said this aspect of his job caused him as much nervous stress and anything he had ever done in his life.
iii) Political: Incomer ministers often tend to be less good at this side of things. They might be unaware of hostile factions in the parliamentary party or the party outside. They might also not be so good at handling the media, as Lady Vadera recently demonstrated.
iv) Overseas: this role involves meeting EU representatives and others abroad. No doubt this is a demanding aspect of the job, but Simon suggested this was more of a fun part of it.
Simon concluded there was a great need to bring ihn outside talent and that such initiates required great patience as well as determination to wade through the bureaucracy and make trheir contributions. He also made a good point in that in business decisons are made operational by efficient, experienced staff- the levers of control are clear and they usually work. The frustrating thing for a business person in government is that you can pull the every lever there is and sometimes nothing happens. The smoking ban, for example, worked a treat: it was passed and, surprisingly for me, just about everyone complied without demur.
Other pieces of legislation however, are less easy to make operational. Mrs Thatcher thought she had imposed the poll tax but those unpredicatable, perverse creatures, the voters, proved that on many issues they decide if a law works or not. In such circumstances, it matters not who introduces it or how brilliant they might be at running big organisations elsewhere in the country.
I think point 3 here is pretty critical as it is the sort of thing that can easily break a ministerial career. I have made a couple of posts on my blog here related to this in the last few days.
The thing that annoys me most is the way that those who are not fully immersed in the political game end up getting savaged by their political opponents and the media. I suppose it is just par for the course but I bet you Alan Duncan was punching the air in delight when he saw this and then was quickly practising his outraged persona. It's all basically play acting and means that the more important issues are sidelined while the circus rolls on.