back to article Cabinet Office losing grip on UK government departments – report

Despite attempts to force government departments in the UK to work together, the "age-old tension" between Whitehall and the Cabinet Office continues – and that's according to an annual report by Parliament's Public Accounts Committee. In its bird's eye view of departmental working, the committee said it still sees issues …

Facepalm

Isn't "challenge" one of those civil service euphemisms?

You know, like "courageous" means "this will end your career"

Left as an exercise for the reader :)

(Sorry, re-watched Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister recently...

13
0
Silver badge

Courageous

Technically 'courageous' means 'this will lose you the election'.

We can always hope...

But it's good to see that Sithumphreyspeak is still alive and well in Whitehall.

9
0
Silver badge

Re: Courageous

No, "courageous" in government-speak means:

courageous

kəˈreɪdʒəs/

adjective

not deterred by danger or pain; brave, does not want a pension.

"his courageous action in signing his name to a letter denying that Jimmy Savile was a chronic paedophile"

synonyms: brave, plucky, fearless, bloody stupid

2
0

Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

Not only is the long term accountability of senior Civil Servants questionable due to the game of musical chairs that they play, but the nature of work they perform on a day-to-day basis is also in doubt.

In a well-functioning democracy, the Government has a moral duty to be open and honest with citizens about its policy positions. However, in an age of media-driven Government, tensions have become acute between the governing elite’s need to get their message across to citizens, and the Civil Service’s obligation to compile factually-based Government pronouncements.

However, it is nigh on impossible to separate out the true facts from such policy pronouncements because they are framed in language which propagates half-truths and sometimes, downright lies – with the deliberate intention of deceiving. Even more worryingly, press releases which are the primary source of information for the press and media about what Government is doing are crafted in such a way as to, in effect, say ‘look here, not there’ thereby focusing their attention exactly where Government wants them to, away from areas it would rather not defend in public.

One of the reasons for this modus operandi is that Government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning – instead of working on its programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently, to satisfy the wants, needs and expectations of the electorate.

The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the Government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy. And because Government has got a monopoly on inside information (enabling it to maintain extremely tight control), it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens and consequently, succeeds in suppressing alternative views and criticism from those on the outside, including Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Conventional wisdom has it that Ministers shape high-level policy and select from policy options developed by special advisers and mandarins, whilst it is the job of senior Civil Servants to define lower-level policy detail underneath, so that it can be used by the rest of the Civil Service to implement the policy of the Government. However, the eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art.

It would also explain why the Civil Service has failed to deliver against promises made by the governing elite, in their election manifestos. This failure has been brought about by the erosion and downgrading of traditional specialist disciplines in the Civil Service like technical, commercial and project management – skills which are absolutely essential to the delivery of public services in today’s world.

What’s more, this intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the Civil Service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering public services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which has in itself, led to alienation and disaffection.

@JagPatel3 on twitter

27
0
Silver badge

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

Agree with everything except why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy

Spin has been at the centre of ALL UK Governments' communications strategy since Blair's tenure (and Campbell's media management) in 1997

15
0

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

"Spin has been at the centre of ALL UK Governments' communications strategy since Blair's tenure (and Campbell's media management) in 1997"

"We will fight them on the beaches..."

where "we" == you, not me.

10
2
Silver badge
FAIL

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

the eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire

Maybe they do not have the choice? In Denmark it is not well known that civil servants are legally obliged to loyally serve their ministers unless the minister demands something that is "clearly illegal" (what that means has never been defined). In the age of "new public management", where "communication" is the only ting that matters this relationship is being blatantly abused by the government.

So while it may appears like civil service is running the show and making a hash of it, the reality is that they are under orders and because of the loyalty clause, they have to suck up the blame or be fired, fined or go to jail even.

Many of the most competent people have left over this or they have "checked out", doing what is required - aka saying whatever the ministers wants said - and spending their best effort on their interests.

9
1
Silver badge

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

"why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy"

I'm going to hate myself for saying this, but maybe it's not entirely the fault of the politicians? Largely their fault, yes, but not entirely. Our appalling media have to take their share of the blame as well. By pandering to the deeply-entrenched prejudices of their owners and editors, they make it impossible for a politician to tell the naked truth - every slight hiccup or 'mis-speak' will be used as material to shred them. So they have to try and make everything sound like good news for the Daily Heil.

e.g. the unfortunate Abbott interview - not impressed by her personally, but what was wrong with saying 'she was bloody exhausted' - it happens to us all. No reason to savage her.

15
0

@SteveK

'Spin has been at the centre of ALL UK Governments' communications strategy since Blair's tenure (and Campbell's media management) in 1997'

Have you forgotten Sir Bernard Ingham in the Thatcher years? Spin has been around as long as the media...

11
0
Flame

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

Not to mention the One-Man-Reason-To-Bring-Back-Transportation: Linton Crosby. (oooh, sorry, that's SIR Linton Crosby to me...).

All we need is to find another terra nullius (since the last thing the Australians want is to have him back). Maybe one of the moons of Uranus? One with no atmosphere?

2
0
Silver badge

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

"In a well-functioning democracy, the Government has a moral duty to be open and honest with citizens about its policy positions."

In a well-functioning democracy, the people are the Government. They task an administration with running the day-to-day stuff that needs to be done and organised in order to have a functioning society.

8
0
Silver badge

Re: @SteveK

No I haven't (I am of the old-ish fart vintage!)

I still think that spin it its current guise can be traced back to 1997 - and possibly coincident with the emergence and wider adoption of electronic communications and a feedback loop to the media that is much quicker than was possible in print-centric days (or before 24-hour TV news).

2
0
Silver badge

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

@JagPatel3

"One of the reasons for this modus operandi is that Government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning"

This I find is a problem with government. A working government would surely be a silent one. One that got on with the job and only visible when something is broken/failing (kinda like in an IT department). Yet to play to the voters they need to be seen to do something even if that something is completely stupid and poorly thought through.

By constantly interfering they add more cost by their reactions and then fixing the result of their reaction. And as a result some people feel important by hounding the gov to react to something (say porn, paedophiles, terrorists, etc) and expect something to be done. Unfortunately we all then have to live with the result which often removes freedoms without actually solving the stated problem.

3
0
Gold badge
Unhappy

@JapPatel3

Posted like a true Civil Servant.

Never use 1 adjective where 3 will do just fine.

Proving once again that editing is still a useful skill, but little practiced.

1
3

This post has been deleted by its author

Silver badge

Re: Why senior Civil Servants are preoccupied with presentation

>Spin has been at the centre of ALL UK Governments' communications strategy since Blair's tenure (and Campbell's media management) in 1997

It goes back a lot further than that. Churchill did a bit of it, in his day.

0
0
Silver badge

Sub-title

Well done with the Yeats quote. Golly - edjukatid hacks

7
0
Silver badge

Obvious, really

"The question of who has a grip of the whole system of Whitehall government has plagued successive governments," said the report.

I fail to see why the above should be the case; the answer is as ever; nobody.

This will continue to be the case until senior civil servants, up to and including the Cabinet Secretary find themselves walking the plank for failure to implement and oversee government policy, or even for "bringing government into disrepute".

It might help if politicians actually put some effort into managing their departments and the civil service in general rather than running around looking for the next good headline and courting / being courted by corporate interests.

5
0
Silver badge

Re: Obvious, really

It would also help if politicians didn't announce policies without getting an honest answer from their department about whether it was possible to deliver or not.

The civil service should be allowed to get involved, objectively, in election campaigns and put party manifestos under the microscope in terms of whether the costings and projected delivery dates being sold to voters bear any relation to reality.

They are almost always dream land.

9
0
Silver badge

Re: Obvious, really

The civil service should be allowed to get involved, objectively,

The wider civil service can't do its own basic job properly, and should under no circumstances be allowed to involve itself in elections. With the single exception of the OBR, to whom all major parties (eg more than 3% of the last election's votes) should be legally obliged to put forward a costed manifesto, both on expenditure and income, with the OBR then commenting solely on the credibility of the plan, and its assumptions.

The OBR could then show them all up for the charlatans that they are.

9
0
Silver badge

Re: Obvious, really

I upvoted, but then I immediately realised that the OBR is, after all, a government department so would face pressure to not be as generous with other parties as it would be with the government. But I'm unsure as to how it could be done in a different way.

Then there are also the actual manifesto promises themselves - are they politically feasible or is it just made-up shit? The Electoral Commission, for instance, should have had the power to block the referendum until there was a credible contingency plan from the government and a credible exit plan from Leave.

7
2
Anonymous Coward

Re: Obvious, really

"The Electoral Commission, for instance, should have had the power to block the referendum"

You cannot be serious. A referendum is called at the will of Parliament. No bureaucracy of any description should be able to "block" that. They may be given the ability to given an opinion on fairness, truth, spending etc. but that is a different matter.

3
0
Stop

Re: Obvious, really

"someone" (a civil servant) tells me that the number of Written Instructions demanded since last year is completely off the scale. (Written Instructions are where the Civil Service say "Minister, your idea is impossible/bonkers/illegal/all three" and the SPAD ignores them and retorts "do it anyway").

7
0
Silver badge

Re: Obvious, really

Yes, I'm serious. A government should not be able to set a date for a referendum in which nobody has planned for one of the answers and where the immediate aftermath was what we saw in June and July last year (and an early general election this year).

5
1
Anonymous Coward

Re: Obvious, really

The first rule of the OBR club is... the OBR is always wrong.

( they really do have an almost perfect record of being wrong every single time )

0
0
Silver badge
Flame

Reshuffle Kerfuffle more like!

The game of musical chairs starts as one Permanent Secretary moves on and they all change jobs in the system. And few are in post long enough to have a vested interest in the long term aims of their department or a project.

Ive been saying this for years. We do we , the public, just accept that "Cabinet reshuffle" is a thing? to me it seems like the most idiotic thing a gummint could do. Admittedly being a gummint there is stiff competition for idiotic practices.

Reshuffle? Its as if they want to guarantee that nobody knows what they are doing or is responsible for anything, which might be nice for them, but its not what im looking for in a government

5
0
Silver badge

Re: Reshuffle Kerfuffle more like!

The game of musical chairs starts as one Permanent Secretary moves on ... We do we , the public, just accept that "Cabinet reshuffle" is a thing?

These are two different things. A Perm Sec is a civil servant not a minister and a Cabinet reshuffle affects ministers. What's permanent about a Perm Sec is that they don't lose their jobs in an election. However senior civil servants can get shifted round so although their rank is permanent their assignment isn't.

4
0
Silver badge

Re: Reshuffle Kerfuffle more like!

We do we , the public, just accept that "Cabinet reshuffle" is a thing?

That's not relevant here. A "permanent secretary" is the civil servant who is supposedly in administrative control of a government department. A "secretary of state" is the politician who is supposedly in executive control. It is only the politicians who get changed during a cabinet reshuffle, because the civil servants are not part of the cabinet, and because (unlike the US system) the British civil service is intended to be apolitical.

The point about the permanent secretary's dancing around, never staying in post is an established trick amongst the senior civil servants for avoiding any responsibility. It goes without saying that none of them are able to build up any expertise or competence, so as a result you have an executive leader who is a know-nothing politician, and an administrative leader who is a know-nothing, do-nothing bureaucrat. It's a bugger's muddle of the first order.

Other than banning career politicians there's not much you can do for them, but on the civil service side, they really should be on five year fixed term (renewable) contracts, and the job should have mandatory experience of some years in the department they're supposed to be running.

11
0
Silver badge
FAIL

Sir Humphrey would have been proud

Let's not overlook the immense contribution from GDS by providing yesterday's technology tomorrow. Or the day after.

6
1
Silver badge

Re: Sir Humphrey would have been proud

Or the day after - if ever.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Re: Sir Humphrey would have been proud

If only we had someone actually capable of strong, stable leadership...

2
0
Anonymous Coward

Re: Sir Humphrey would have been proud

"If only we had someone actually capable of strong, stable leadership..."

In the UK context, that means someone who hates democracy, hates discussing things in public and hates taking advice.

I vote for coalition personally; not really interested in a one party state - unless you think Zimbabwe is a role model...

3
0
Silver badge

Perhaps a when a senior civil servant takes charge of a major project they should be blocked from moving on until it's complete - except, of course on being sacked for incompetence or on retirement. That might give project managers a sense of urgency. It might also result in what would be big projects being split into chunks under the major project limit, chunks which might then be of manageable size capable of being delivered.

6
0
Facepalm

I worked with a chap who'd been in the civil service once. When asked why he quit what was a significantly better paid job than he'd subsequently got he answered

I got fed up with moving every 2-3 years. You'd arrive in a new job with no idea what you're doing and a huge backlog of work. you'd spend the first 8-12 months figuring that out. Then the next 8-12 months fighting through the backlog. In the last 8-12 months you'd have caught up and understand enough to see the inefficiencies, but you'd be moving soon so what's the point of changing anything...

Seemed a pretty damning insight into the machine.

5
0
Silver badge

Why Cabinet Office is being ignored

It's simple. Their initiatives are, for the most part, a waste of time and money. Remember they brought into being the GDS fiasco, the huge waste of time and money that is the GSC, they're the ones who have people saying "I'll take the risk on this" who are then notable only for running away when the shit hits the fan. They are being ignored for the same reason that I ignore the pub bore, they don't know what they are talking about and are just a source of noise.

2
0
Thumb Up

Good news!

A genuinely interesting bit of news on El Reg that wasn't widely reportedly elsewhere. Keep it up!

0
0

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Forums

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2018