Few people think the government has made a good fist of managing the country through the pandemic. We should not blame them because even the best of governments are poor managers partly because they confuse governing with managing. The word “govern” originates from being the helmsman, someone who sets the overall direction, rules or controls the ship (of state). The managers are the others who get things done. In modern terms, government sets the rules (laws and statutory instruments), deals with other states, recruits and equips the armed forces and, through taxation, pays for whatever democracy thinks the state should provide. Management is quite another matter; there has not been anyone with significant management experience in the Cabinet for over 25 years. The last two were Geoffrey
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Few people think the government has made a good fist of managing the country through the pandemic. We should not blame them because even the best of governments are poor managers partly because they confuse governing with managing. The word “govern” originates from being the helmsman, someone who sets the overall direction, rules or controls the ship (of state). The managers are the others who get things done. In modern terms, government sets the rules (laws and statutory instruments), deals with other states, recruits and equips the armed forces and, through taxation, pays for whatever democracy thinks the state should provide. Management is quite another matter; there has not been anyone with significant management experience in the Cabinet for over 25 years. The last two were Geoffrey Robinson, outed for lending money to Peter Mandelson in 1998, and Michael Heseltine who fell out with Margaret Thatcher in 1986.
According to the UK government listing “Departments, agencies and public bodies”, downloaded 20th June 2020, the PM has 23 Ministerial Departments reporting directly to him as well as a further 20 Non-Ministerial Departments who you might expect to report to ministers but seem not to. Those departments harbour about 370 Executive Agencies, Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs), Tribunals, Public Corporations and other quangos. According to the listing, the numbers mysteriously grow to about (do not expect precision from the Cabinet Office) 400 when they are listed alphabetically. For someone recovering from Covid, that number of direct reports, not to mention Mr Cummings, is a bit tough.
Government should focus on governing and get out of management. Amongst the 370 NDPBs and whatnot, are 17 museums and a dozen parks and gardens, all good things but do they govern us? Public corporations, like the BBC and the Bank of England, are a step in the right direction. The shareholder is the state but government does not interfere in day to day operations. Arguably the best thing Gordon Brown ever did was to step away from interfering in the Bank of England. Amongst the 400 Executive Agencies and NDPBs, quite a few should be public corporations, notably NHS England which would do an even better job if it was given the chance to do so.
The interesting question is who should be the shareholder in UK public corporations if it is not the government? The Royal Parks, unlike the 17 English parks above, are owned by the Crown Estate but the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and yet not managed by them nor a NDPB because they form an independent charity.
Adult social care had a bad pandemic because it is chronically poorly funded; that is because no one is in charge. Local government is directly responsible for adult social care but lacks the funds. The Care Quality Commission, which usually checks hospitals, monitors it without regard to funding issues. One might imagine that the central funding comes from the Department of Health and Social Care but that is not so; the Ministry of Housing and Funny Walks provides the moolah and also, clearly being expert in the matter, directions on how it should be spent.
Confusion still reigns over devolution. Downing Street pandemic briefings sought to convey that the messages were UK-wide even though health is constitutionally devolved. The listing of Whitehall public bodies noted above contained 35 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland NDPBs. And MPs from those nations can still vote in the Westminster parliament on purely English matters.
Parliament itself could use some streamlining. In 2011, parliament recognised the inequity of constituency sizes (the biggest have twice the number of voters of the smallest) and voted to reduce the number of MPs from 650 by 8%. Scotland and Wales are, ironically in view of devolution, over-represented and would reduce by 10% and 18% respectively compared with 6% in England. France and Germany have 50% more voters per constituency than the UK so an 8% shrinkage, you might think, is modest. MPs however share turkeys’ dislike of Christmas and managed to postpone the necessary boundary changes first to 2018 and then sine die.
One also might expect a little more enthusiasm for reducing the numbers in the House of Lords, currently 778. It is the only upper chamber in the world which exceeds the lower chamber in number. The average age is 70; the oldest is 95. 26 of them are Lords Spiritual of the Church of England – tough cheese if you belong to another nation or faith. 26 is more than twice the number of Christ’s disciples and three times the proportion of the UK population attending C of E churches. The House of Lords Reform Act 2014 was truly radical: it allowed those who did not turn up to lapse their membership.
Many people believe the UK has no written constitution but that is not the case. It was written, by Lewis Carroll, in the 19th century but, Britain being an old country, no one can remember where we put it.
Joking aside, government, and the PM especially, really does need to focus on governing, streamline today’s incoherent structure, farm out public corporations and step away from management. How can that be done? Certainly not with another Royal Commission led by an elderly judge. Lawyers are responsible for most of this mess and the least likely people to get us out of it. Far more important is political consensus: we must not have this changing every election. Maybe the party leaders should meet for a good lunch, when social distancing allows, to hack out a rough solution. Sir Humphrey should take the minutes but otherwise remaining silent. I’ll pay for the lunch.
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