Magazine article Public Finance

Too Clever for Our Own Good

Magazine article Public Finance

Too Clever for Our Own Good

Article excerpt

'At the Home Office, I worked with some of the cleverest and most dedicated people I have known.' Thus wrote Katharine Raymond, a former special adviser to David Blunkett at the Home Office, in last Sunday's Observer.

The word that stands out here for me is 'clever'. After working in universities for the past decade and a half, I'm used to bumping into clever people and I've met plenty in Whitehall. But why is it that the main thing you hear constantly said about our civil servants - well the 'Whitehall Village' portion of them anyway - is just how clever they are?

Before having a closer look at this 'cleverness' issue, let's assess the size of the problem. First, the Home Office. It presides over the largest prison population in Europe and a re-offending rate for ex-cons of staggering proportions. It allowed illegal immigration to spiral out of control, disadvantaging genuine asylum seekers. Now it has presided over the worst possible combination of politically volatile elements - crime and migration - by allowing more than a thousand foreign nationals to walk free from prison when they should have been considered for deportation.

But let's be fair - it's not just the Home Office. The Department of Health has allowed the financial management and contracts of medics to get so out of control that overspending has become a new flash point. How any department can turn the highest spending it has ever received into a crisis involving thousands of redundancies elevates 'cleverness' to new heights.

Indeed, all across Whitehall there are both the usual suspects - Ministry of Defence cost overruns and large scale IT failures - sitting alongside novel ones such as massive overpayments in tax credits to the poorest people (Revenue & Customs); even bigger failures to collect money off those who mostly can pay - absent fathers (Work & Pensions); failure to pay out to farmers (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs); and finally an overspent legal aid budget leading to the loss of hundreds of jobs in the courts, and probably knock-on extra delays in criminal justice (Constitutional Affairs). The word 'shambles' doesn't even come close.

So, back to cleverness. A couple of years ago, an academic colleague of mine was discussing with a Treasury official how the department had amassed huge amounts of power under Chancellor Gordon Brown. My colleague believed, quite rightly, that 'you shouldn't put the finance department in charge of the organisation'. The riposte was again telling: 'We have 200 first-rate minds here in the Treasury - how many have they got in the Cabinet Office, 20 at most? …

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