Monday, May 27, 2024
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Kiev is still at work – why aren’t our civil servants?


JUST before the Russian invasion, a Ukrainian breeder of Italian greyhounds near Kiev evacuated his latest litter to Western Europe to preserve blood lines (and, possibly, to deny ill-supported Russian soldiers a bonus meat ration). A friend accepted one such pup. It was delivered by the breeder’s courier, who then returned to Ukraine. The next day the Russians attacked.

This weekend my friend received his dog’s pedigree from the Ukrainian Kennel club, based in Kiev. The pedigree was stamped and dated Saturday 16 April. Despite the bombardments and battles, let alone the infrastructure damage, the Ukraine Kennel Club continues working, even at weekends. 

At the same time much of our own Civil Service is refusing to return to the office for more than two days a week due to the risks of Covid. Notwithstanding the debatable adverse impacts on productivity of working from home, many civil servants can’t do their job if they’re not in the office. For example, the DVLA medical section, which issues licences to those who have to meet medical criteria such as HGV drivers and diabetics, can’t access the relevant files and computers unless they’re in their offices (rightly). The backlog is immense.

The Ukrainian bureaucracy is working despite being under military attack. The British Civil Service isn’t due to the risk of infection with a disease the impact of which is either asymptomatic or, for those without four or more comorbidities, minor. Bombs and missiles don’t stop Ukrainians, a sneeze brings the UK to a halt.

Why is this the case? Weak leadership. By whom? Senior civil servants, who were instructed unequivocally by their ministerial masters in January to get back into the office. They haven’t, as somehow the Civil Service has embraced ‘hybrid working’, which may be convenient for them but does not help the public whom they exist to serve. As seems all too often the case, public service unions are running rings round their senior leadership and political masters. Of course, as we now know, that senior leadership can’t even correctly identify an unlawful gathering in an office.

One of the trends of the past couple of decades has been the widening gap in working conditions between the public sector (37.5-hour weeks, lavish holiday entitlement and fabulous pension) and the private one, especially the engine room of the economy, the owner-managed SME. These people tend to work all the hours they can and have their house on the line as security for the bank loans that set them up. The business is their pension. Stress? Part of the job – and a much underestimated one. Forty-six per cent of employment comes from businesses with fewer than ten employees; they also generate 35 per cent of the UK’s turnover.

They pay for the state despite seldom enjoying the same employment conditions as those paid to serve them. The consequences of the pandemic and lockdowns have been far more severe for them; many folded.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for government efficiency (a role parodied in Yes Minister’s Jim Hacker, the Minister for Administrative Affairs), has apparently written a letter to get people back into the office. That’s unlikely to work any better than the exhortation of Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, in the Mail on Sunday telling civil servants who refuse to return to their desks that they will be in breach of their contracts. 

Transforming failing organisations takes hands-on, dynamic action by experienced managers and effective, inspiring leaders. It frequently involves the removal of failed leadership and reorganisation to match responsibilities with reporting lines. It involves speaking the truth and implementing the short-term pain to deliver long-term results. A veritable cleaning of the Augean stables.

Unfortunately the UK’s system of government (in which senior civil servants advise ministers on the implementation of political policy) renders sorting out the civil service itself nigh on impossible. That low probability diminishes to zero when one’s political class has become professional: adept at memorising a soundbite, reading an autocue and turning a phrase, but little else. This is a government that alone has delivered the current Covid crisis, the developing financial and cost of living crises and the looming energy crisis. 

All were avoidable. All were inevitable. And will be, unless we, the electorate who pay the bills, decide it’s time for a complete change of management. We, the electorate, removed Brussels as our controller. Now it’s time to sort out Westminster and Whitehall.

Unlike the UK, the pup is fine, by the way.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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