Magazine article Public Finance

The More Things Change

Magazine article Public Finance

The More Things Change

Article excerpt

In my last column (The ministry of silly changes', May 27) I suggested that it might be a good idea if government organisations ministries and agencies - were put on some sort of legislative basis.

I was pleased to receive an immediate response from Sir Andrew Turnbull, the outgoing head of the civil service, politely disagreeing and saying that in his experience foreign visitors were always envious of the UK's flexibility in these matters.

We clearly talk to different people. In my contacts with international public administrators I find that many are shocked and frankly unbelieving when I try to explain the UK's remarkably non-legal basis for public administration. When I have been lecturing abroad on the Next Steps programme of agency creation in our civil service, people have flatly refused to believe there was no legislation authorising it.

So why and how is the UK different? Well, first it is not different in all cases. The supposed advantages of flexibility apparently only apply to Whitehall: local government, Welsh and Scottish government, quangos and many other public bodies are subject to legislation. Even a few bits of Whitehall are - the main ones being the revenue agencies (HM Revenue & Customs).

This is purely an accident of history, rather than by design. British government derives its authority from the monarchy, and ministries were traditionally established through Crown prerogative. Apart from the revenue agencies, where legislators insisted on a legal basis to try to keep the monarch out of the till, they never thought it sufficiently important to try to get control over what ministries the government decided to create, merge, delete or ludicrously, and sometimes purely vainly - rename.

This does indeed offer ministers more flexibility than they would enjoy in most other democratic countries. The churn rate in ministry structures is quite high. And one study in the 1980s, by Christopher Pollitt, pointed out that these reorganisations tended to go in cycles - from small specialised ministries to superministries and back again.

But this rearranging of the deckchairs can be deceptive. It is mostly about simply redistributing functions. Few are abolished. Few are farmed out to local government or guangos, because that does require legislation.

Being able to carry out impressive-sounding but often fairly superficial reorganisations is certainly a political lever most governments and ministers seem to enjoy pulling. It creates a great impression that 'something is being done'. …

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