Times Campaign for New Breed of Mandarins Off-Target?

21st Febuary 2013

By David Laughrin, Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL Constitution Unit and former Senior Civil Servant

A recent run of articles in The Times has intrigued me. The latest  shot is “New breed of experts takes on the mandarins” (20 February). This suggests that “Ministers have appointed a string of ‘expert advisers’ from outside Whitehall in a first step to politicise the Civil Service.”  Despite the rather small string described and the reported (and rather over-dramatic) alleged fears about politicisation, the accompanying Times leader suggests that “The American system, whereby whole administrations change upon election, has much to be said for it.” This echoes the thrust of a recent three day Times series.  But it ends with a less dramatic conclusion that bringing in expert advisers is a good thing provided their roles and responsibilities are made clear.

What all this unexpectedly prominent and not wholly coherent news coverage fails to make clear itself is that the process of bringing outsiders into Whitehall is not new. Some of us are old enough to remember the business team brought into Whitehall by Edward Heath under Sir Richard Meyjes[1] in the early 1970s, in an echo of those brought in by Churchill during the Second World War.  There have been lots of others since, some successful – like Sir Derek Rayner for Mrs Thatcher – and some less so. There has also been a large rise in external recruitment to the Senior Civil Service.

But more importantly the article also fails to address the central issue of how better decision-making in government is best encouraged. Is it by the kind of politicisation that The Times seems to want to promote, albeit a bit half-heartedly? Or is it, as I would argue, through policies that get the right blend between challenge and support, driving through necessary change while ensuring proper expert scrutiny and risk assessment?

Good decision-making in Government is not easy, and is probably often more difficult than in many private sector situations. (I have argued this more fully in a booklet called Searching for the X-Factors[2].) The best climate for good decisions seems to come from situations where right until late in the day there is provision for challenge – of pre-conceptions, of analysis, of evidence, of conclusions, of implementation plans.

As top decision-makers in the private sector said to me, we need people who can kick the tyres and properly stress-test proposed solutions. As Professor Philip Tetlock has suggested in “Expert Political Judgment” [3] we ideally also need a mixture of styles of decision-maker. We need those blessed with certainty that they know the right answers and can drive through transformational change – the “hedgehogs”. We also need those with less certainty and more willingness to try incremental change, pilot new ideas and adapt or modify their schemes in the light of experience and new evidence – the “foxes”.

Does that scenario best emerge from a situation where the majority of people surrounding the top decision-maker are political appointees chosen personally by the senior Minister? My hunch is probably not.

Equally, however, there is also evidence that giving too much weight to the status quo is also likely to inhibit the best decisions. So that does support the idea that in amongst those who have developed departmental strategies over the years there should be sufficient newcomers. They can bring fresh ideas and challenge to the official machine.

In the UK this has been delivered, often successfully, through a mix of permanent and temporary appointments. Some temporary appointments have been primarily political through the Special Adviser (Spad) appointments made by Ministers alone. Some have been primarily expert, through short term appointments as temporary civil servants, whose expertise is validated independently by the Civil Service Commissioners.

So the UK has brought in enthusiasts with political networks and antennae to drive forward controversial new policies. It has also allowed experts to contribute their specialist knowledge to complex debates on what are often defined as the “wicked issues” that beset political challenges. (These are those where no obvious solutions exist and all options are beset by potential unintended consequences.)

Why then do mid-term Governments get afflicted by jitters about whether this blend is delivering the right decisions and outcomes? Why do they fret so whether they might need more commissars to bludgeon through their preferred solutions against tight political timescales?  I suspect this is a product of the beleaguered lifestyles of so many Ministers in a world where so much is demanded of them in the short term. It is also a world of a 24/7 news agenda and where the overload is such that, as one former Minister said to me, ”people were trying to have meetings with me in the lift as I left the building.”

So I sympathise with the idea that Ministers need all the help that they can get to make their lives tolerable and their decisions properly implemented. But I think it is also important that they get the right blend of support to make sure that those decisions are good ones and they are capable of effective implementation. Like Peter Riddell, the respected Director of the Institute for Government (whose letter was published in The Times  on 21 February) I don’t see that coming from wholesale moves to a US-style system. I do see it coming from some sensible development of the blend developed in the UK for more years than The Times appears to acknowledge. But then I always was more of a fox than a hedgehog by nature.

[1]  Sir Richard Meyjes, a former senior businessman from Shell was brought into Whitehall by Prime Minister Edward Heath to head a team of businessmen appointed to review the machinery of government and assist departments in pursuing the then government’s agenda. The team worked from 1970 to 1972.

[2]  Searching for the X-Factors: Decision-Making in Government and Business published jointly by the Whitehall and Industry Group and Ashridge Business School, October 2011.

[3]  Expert Political Judgment  Philip Tetlock, Princeton University Press, 2005

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