"Sadly for those who triumph hope over experience, there is little to suggest the situation has materially improved."
What the fuck has happened to the quality of English on this site?
It’s impossible to read former bollocker-in-chief Margaret Hodge’s account of being chair of the government's spending watchdog without repeatedly banging your head against the wall. Hodge presided over the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee between 2010-2015, during the coalition government’s austerity programme. …
It's very easy to blame civil servants and conjure up images of Sir Humphrey but:
1. The government is in charge at the end of the day. The shareholders in a large company wouldn't put up with the CEO blaming his staff all the time and neither should we let the government hide from their responsibilities.
2. In my experience the government doesn't want to hear that they'"re doing the wrong thing. What they want is for you to "dance to the latest tune", people who express doubts are pushed aside.
3. A lot of projects go wrong because the government doesn't think things through, poorly defines requirements and those it does define it changes.
4. A lot of work these days is done by private industry which have proven they are just as good at screwing up. Add poor requirements and requirement changes to that and... well you know what happens.
5. A lot of civil servants get crap pay (I doubled my pay when I left), crappy working conditions (chairs were often repaired with tape, we had to wear gloves in winter) and then get blamed by the government without the right of reply. It makes it hard to care, it really does.
Of course there are bad civil servants, just as there are bad employees in any organisation. I've seen more money wasted and more failed projects in the private sector than I saw in government.... they just get hidden a lot better :-)
>I've seen more money wasted and more failed projects in the private sector than I saw in government
Of course most of this money wasted by the public sector is being wasted In the private sector.
People get riled about the civil servants spending money that's not their own but let's reserve some ire for the people who are directly profiting.
Unless some theoretical moneyologist can persuade us it's all grist to the economic mill and we all benefit in the end whatever.
I've seen more money wasted and more failed projects in the private sector than I saw in government
Maybe, but if a company screws up too many times it fails or gets taken over by someone more competent. If government departments screw up repeatedly the senior civil servants still get their knighthoods and stonking great pensions, and we pay more taxes.
That behaviour is largely due to the sheer scale of things nowadays. Democracy, if seriously tried, can work on a scale of a few hundred or even a few thousand people. One hundred thousand... not so much. 50 million, forget it. As for 320 million, as in the USA... well, we've seen how that has gone.
What happens is that, the bigger the community to be ruled, the greater the power and wealth at the disposal of the rulers. In other words, the greater the temptation to ruthless, unscrupulous people. Moreover, the bigger the scale, the more complex the organization, and the more opportunities to cheat systematically. Hence the old saying that any organization is like a cesspool: the really big chunks float to the top. The bigger the cesspool, the bigger the chunks, which is why the USA and the EU have substantially bigger chunks than the UK (although ours are quite big enough to be going on with).
Moreover, the longer and tougher the road to leadership - the higher and greasier the pole to climb - the less likely it is that anyone who is in the least bit qualified to lead effectively (or even who has the slightest interest in doing so) will manage to finish the obstacle course and win election. So naturally we get what is observed: political leaders who spend most of their time hob-nobbing with the rich and powerful, soliciting "contributions", and doing favours on a "quid pro quo" basis. In what little time they have left they quaff spirituous beverages, consult their favourite astrologers, er, sorry, "think tank wonks", and attack defenceless countries to make themselves appear tough and give their citizens something to swagger about. Plato understood this, and explained it in "The Republic". Gore Vidal made the same point in his usual pithy way: "Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so".
The whole political establishment is bankrupt. It's been a very long time since anybody designed a democratic system that was actually intended to work - the Swiss did a good job of it (surprise, surprise) a few centuries ago, and it's still working for them. In other countries, monarchies based on brute force were gradually diluted to avoid revolution, slowly adopting a few "democratic" features as protective coloration. The central focus of all those systems - whether in the USA, the UK, France or elsewhere - has always been to avoid any actual democracy like the plague. Just as long as the punters keep quiet and knuckle under...
Not sure what part of civil service you where in or when but in my day (2000 - 2008) we had great equipment, latest desks and chairs because health and safety, latest servers, switches firewalls, desktops, laptops etc. Training sucked though. Long timers retired after securing their final salary pension and then came back a few weeks later earning private sector pay with public sector benefits. There was a mad push to farm out services like facilities, security, IT, for no better reason than to have it on someone's civil service cv that they outsourced something, regardless of the cost or impact to the organisation.
No one cared about the cost of anything. Staff where always looking at ways of maximising their pay for minimum work. Working weekends but not doing any work. Turning up early mon - thu so they can have Friday off, clocking their mates in and out etc.
Private companies are there to maximise earnings while the civil service are blind to costs, and have outsourced so much they have no clue on the true cost of anything. When HP[E] says a desk visit to patch a cable costs £100, whoever civil servent manages the contract has no clue & just pays it (yes it may cost £100 if the tech has to travel x miles to do that job, but the previous onsite tech would have just done it).
There is a huge culture of someone else will do it without knowing the cost which the outsourcers play to their benefit.
1. CEO's blame everything and everyone all the time then get their mates on the remuneration committee to give them a big rise and bonus while denying the staffs.
2. Again not unique to government it happens in both public and private organisations.
3. Ministers don't write detailed specs for outsourcing that's civil servants, ministers might interfere (got to look after that future income) but it's the service that do the leg work filling in the detail or as mostly happens completely missing the detail so that any little thing can be charged as an expensive extra.
4. Unfortunately yes we do
5. Anytime I've worked directly for government (Whitehall and local) furniture has all been good and the hourly rate for the work I saw getting done was OK, most places I saw people spend 2/3 of the time moaning they had to much work which then only took the other 1/3 to do. Not saying it was the majority of people but it was enough that it was noticeable and with no one managing the situation.
In my experience, government and public bodies find change very difficult to accept. They prefer to keep banging on doing something they already know how to do even if it's inefficient, rather than understand that their processes are wasting money and causing difficulties for those who have to use the services those public departments supposedly supply. Of course, some of that resistance is a realization that if savings can be made then those budgets will be cut and they'll lose the money that they're effectively using to feather their nests with.
I have to add that I've seen the same in the private sector, it's just that there anyone putting in too much resistance eventually loses their job.
The ancient Athenians had a nice way of dealing with this kind of problem. All public officials were elected by the Assembly - the city was so small that all the citizens (no women, slaves, foreigners, etc.) could meet in a single place - usually for no more than one year. Definitely a good idea: any longer and they get their feet under the table and start conspiring.
But here was the really great twist: at the end of that year in office, the Assembly met again to consider how each official was to be rewarded. It might be a statue, a nice house, or just a vote of thanks. OR... it might be a fine, exile, or even the death penalty. At one stage in the Peloponnesian War, a whole series of Athenian generals simply stayed abroad when their term of office elapsed, for fear of what they would get if they went home.
Now start thinking of modern-day politicians and civil servants, and how they would fare under the Athenian system...
Yes, they brilliantly had a kneejerk execution of their admirals and then realised they had nobody to run the Navy, as pointed out to them by Aristophanes (Arginusae, 406BCE). A year is often not nearly long enough to decide if a public official is a success or a failure, so such a system encourages extremely cautious conformism. Athenian democracy didn't really last very long.
My other half worked for the Police a few years ago. Her job was to monitor projects (mainly several to get all the dozens of 'Police systems' across the country to join up) and have progress meetings with the Project Managers.
When she started all the Project Managers were puzzled and looking up from their crossword puzzles all said words to the effect of "Why are you doing this? It's a Govt project, we just tell Whitehall what they want to hear when the project finishes! It's only taxpayers money after all!"
She only stayed a few weeks.
ISTR under the team before they got rid of anyone in the civil service who knew what they were doing if they could. I worked for a council a few years ago and the only people in the IT dept who knew what they were doing were still there from many years earlier but sensibly refused to divulge their job to the contractors and as such couldn't be got rid of easily.
It had the smallest most cost effective IT dept for a council of its size by nearly an order of magnitude.
Presumably this is "our team vs their team" type politics. This thinking is what lets politicians of all persuasions off the hook. However bad they are they just point to someone else and say well 'they would have been worse' and some people believe them.
I think the article itself points out the same play from all the players. The upshot as far as I can tell is that politicians should not be involved in project that are likely to last longer than one parliament, probably none shorter either.
No, it was just as shit when her lot were running things. To be fair to Mrs Hodge, many of the things she highlights as being particularly egregious were attributable to Labour, and even so she doesn't pull her punches. The real difference is that before the ascendence of the PAC over the last few years it was easier to brush this sort of incompetence and/or corruption under the carpet.
The PAC has become more newsworthy over the years she has been in charge of it, and has uncovered a lot of things that the civil service would probably rather not be out in the open. All good stuff, though how much of this was down to Mrs Hodge's leadership and how much is down to the changing rules of government transparency and improved access to proceedings for the media (televised sessions etc.) remains an open question.
One can only hope it carries on in the same fashion - the cynic in me thinks that anything which embarrasses senior civil servants and politicians alike is likely to be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of.
the cynic in me thinks that anything which embarrasses senior civil servants and politicians alike is likely to be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of.
I think that should be senior civil servants and politicians alike should be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of.
"I think that should be senior civil servants and politicians alike should be abolished as soon as an excuse can be thought of."
I think the word you're looking for is "revolution".
The main problem with revolutions, aside from all the collateral damage, is that they are invariably, err, revolutions. Things just revolve until they're back in the previous formations.
"Is the civil service still based on advancement according to who you know + longevity?" well that's how things work in most big companies so why would you expect it to be different here?
I'd say the biggest change I've seen is at the top. Nowadays you need to sing from the same sheet as the governments current thinking if you want to advance. It's a difficult balancing act as they change their minds every five minutes so you need to be up-to-date with their latest ideas but it mustn't seem too obvious that that's what you're doing.
That sort of filters down to the lower ranks too.
'Old stories' but not meant in a bad way. It's generally the case that books 'whisle blow' and 'blow the doors off' to sell copy but in this case Marge was forthright at the time an disliked for it. All she's done is collated all the crap she was trying to wade for through all of those years.
That they don't get caught making a decision and that there is a clearly identifiable chain of blame that they are not in.
My general experience of working on government IT projects is that the Civil Service does care about the waste of money, and do want value for money. They are not however prepared to stick their heads above the parapet and risk taking the blame when things go wrong, so everything has plenty of wiggle room, which leads to cost, cost, cost, and unless as a supplier you are really stupid, profit, profit, profit.
To be fair to Margaret Hodge, she does seem to be laying some blame on her lot too for some of the massively misconceived projects and monumental waste incurred under new labour as well the current lot ......
A business would just stop paying .. us taxpayers should boycott paying the government til they stop wasting our money .. that would force a boot up some arses. That and how about clawing back civil servants' wages; if you are responsible for wasting hundreds of millions of tax payers' money you should have all your salary clawed back down to the level paid out on universal credit. That would focus a few minds or stop people greenlighting in the first place.
Flip side is if NAO shows they have genuinely saved money through IT they should get an override on the money saved ...
Oh, will someone just take Jeremy Hunt out an euthanase him (politically) now...
Not at all. Everyone can see the IT fail therefore the the top bod in, for example the health department for NHS IT cock-ups, gets marching orders and no pension. No arguments, they are gone. Next cock-up, the same thing with the new head bod.
Kept up long enough, they might get the message.
> Her prescription is a heavy dose of transparency, accountability and training.
> “The civil service continues to lack the appropriate skills and expertise required for modern government.” Commercial and IT expertise are particularly wanting as there are “simply not enough civil servants with those skills.”
The only way the Civil Service is going to acquire the skills and expertise required to deliver such projects successfully is to pay going rates for those skills. The words "false economy" spring to mind.
Most government departments have outsourced their IT delivery, so they're not going to acquire IT skills, ever. The best they can hope for is to gain staff with decent project management skills who can avoid being taken for a ride by the outsourcing companies. But they don't pay the going rate, so that won't happen.
Quite. So many civil servants have been sacked over the years, as politicians of whatever flavour have stood up in Parliament and acted hard about slashing government waste, that there are few people left who know enough to see through the torrent of bullshit generated by the companies bidding for projects. Ministers picked the easy target of the recurring payroll cost and assumed that cutting the numbers would result in long-term savings (because, after all, we all think that civil servants are lazy, overpaid and a waste of space, don't we?). It was a false economy and we're still paying the price of their ignorance and arrogance.
From the outside looking in the major problems for government IT seem to be -
Change of management due to election
Stupidly wide project scope
Arse covering due to previous points
Why not put everyone in the department onto a bonus scheme that depends on fixed project trargets, fixed budgets and fixed go-live dates? Pull together as a team, stop adding more caveats and deliver it on time. Oh, and still be there 12 months after go-live to collect.
Or am I moving too far towards the Lenin school of project management via a 5 year plan / gun to the head?
There is a lovely book about government projects gone wrong over the last 6 or 7 decades, projects that had lofty goals and that were politically hijacked or went off the rails because people spotted loopholes and effectively abused them to the point where the government had to pull the plug.
It's called "The Blunders of our Governments" (Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00EZ5YXQ8/ - starts a new page). It is most enlightening reading, and political persuasion is irrelevant. It pretty much echoes some of my experiences in government (particularly DEFRA).
Nice to see La Hodge not pulling punches over her own party...
Reading that apocryphal quotation reminds me of an episode in Caesar's memoirs of the Gallic wars. He is describing an auxiliary legion, composed of allied tribesmen rather than Roman citizens: they were creating an impression of great activity, but actually achieving nothing.
There is a story that has circulated in Washington circles for thirty or more years:
Enemies of our country have captured three US citizens: a sergeant of Marines, a government auditor, and a government program manager. All are condemned but shot, but each gets one last wish. The sergeant requests to hear the The Star Spangled Banner before he is shot. The government auditor asks to deliver a talk on waste, fraud, and abuse. The program manager asks to be shot right after The Star Spangled Banner.
When I worked for a GEC company the standard methodology for MoD contracts was:
1. Nail down the requirements - never underestimate the value of the legal team.
2. Cut costs to win the contract.
3. Develop rigidly to spec, even though you know it's not going to work and it's not what they want - it's what they asked for, resulting in...
4. Sell them consultancy telling them what they should have asked for in the first place.
5. Here's the money. Each and every change to the requirements results in a Change Request - which must be costed to include coding, documentation, test and debug and integration costs.
You undercut your competitors to win the contract and make your money on change requests.
When I worked for a GEC company the standard methodology for MoD contracts was:....
Still is. And this is the modus operandi for BPO and IT companies serving private sector companies too. Government aren't getting special treatment, its just they're even shitter at playing the game than companies daft enough to outsource anything they care about.
I spent many years at GEC, and confirm that this was indeed, the official methodology, but you omitted to mention the importance of "appropriate penalties for cancellation" so that when the government changed hands and the scale of the disaster was revealed, if it was written off, it immediately became even more profitable.
When I worked for a GEC company the standard methodology for MoD contracts was: (etc)
In the interests of completeness it is worth pointing out that if you don't do it that way the outcome is likely to be that you (the company) finishes up bankrupt itself, because "you" find yourself paying to rectify the gross mistakes in the original (government) specification.
While the idea of "ripping off the taxpayer" is unattractive it can only really happen if the original specification is so wide of what is really required.
"“We identified an alarming and deep-rooted culture where all too often the responsible officials displayed a nonchalant attitude to spending the hard-earned money we entrust them when we pay our taxes,” she writes."
Sounds EXACTLY like my local Labour-run council.
It has long been established as a fact that the lack of commercial skills in the Civil Service is hampering attempts to make central Government procurement more efficient – a point that the former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee highlighted time and again, during the last Parliament.
With respect to the Ministry of Defence, one must add the Project Management skills of its acquisition officials at MoD Abbey Wood, Bristol as a serious obstacle to value for money procurement.
Because, instead of requiring Defence Contractors to scope a fully costed and priced Programme of Work in Microsoft Project to advance the developmental status of their starting-points for their Technical Solutions from their existing condition, to a point where they will satisfy the qualitative and quantitative requirements expressed in the technical specification, MoD is persisting with the tried-and-failed practice of asking for a plethora of Management Plans as a response to the invitation to tender – which has given Contractors a chance to stuff these plans full of:
(a) Pretty pictures and diagrams.
(b) Grossly exaggerated claims regarding the maturity of the starting-point for the Technical Solution.
(c) Warm soothing words, false promises and hollow statements of intent skilfully crafted in such a way as to allow Contractors to rescind on work commitments later on, during the Contract performance phase.
(d) Organisational charts with names of self-important people on overheads who will not be getting hands-on with the work to be done in the next phase.
(e) An asking price quoted in the ITT response which bears no correlation to the work intended to be performed by the Contractor during the follow-on phase.
(f) A non-existent or useless schedule.
In addition, the widespread practice of digging out old ITTs from the archives, dusting them off, searching & replacing the project name and despatching them off to Contractors has resulted in the Principles of Natural Justice being routinely violated, because selection criteria essential to inform the decision on down-selection, phase-by-phase is omitted – leaving Bidders in the dark as to what evaluation criteria they will be measured against.
Such is the stupid folly of the moment that this is what passes for best practice in Project Management in the 21st century, as practiced by MoD civil servants and Defence Contractors!
It’s not so much a lack of skills in the Civil Service that is the problem, but a surplus of people with the wrong skills. Accordingly, innovation and new ways of working in the Civil Service will come only after the headcount has been cut, not before!
@JagPatel3 on twitter
...when I worked in the private sector managing projects, I had to account for every quid spent. Wastage was not an option. If I needed an extra £100 to cover some overtime I had to jump through hoops so you planned accordingly so you didn't have to ask.
The thing is did it make managing the project harder? Not really. You just worked a little smarter, planned ahead. Worked out the potential pitfalls and made contingencies.
You know...basic project management.
All my projects arrived on time and on or under budget. So why is it that similar rules cannot be applied to public sector projects? The only reason I can think of is lack of a spine to force the twats to do the job properly.
...ranting from a dodgy politician...
"With Hodge there are two bones for contention. The first is her and her family’s shareholdings in Stemcor. These involve a web of family trusts and one of the effects of these sorts of trusts is to protect money from taxation.
The second issue is Stemcor itself and how much tax it pays. Obviously every company has a duty to its shareholders to minimise taxation. Analysis of Stemcor’s 2011 accounts in the Daily Telegraph show that the business paid tax of just £163,000 on profits of £65million." (Hodge has a 50% holding in this company)
And casting our minds back to the MP's expenses scandal...
"Hodge claimed over £2,200 for “PR support” from Chilli and Spice between May and August 2007. This company is run by Janet Coull, who was Mrs Hodge press officer when she was a junior employment minister from 1998 to 2001. House of Commons rules say that MPs cannot claim expenses for “self-promotion or PR” for individuals or political parties. Receipts from Chilli and Spice submitted to the Commons fees office by Mrs Hodge stated that they provided “PR support”. (Hodge was also accused of other expense transgressions, but you get the picture.)
....when the government had the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) to oversee big projects and provide world-class expertise when needed?
Government IT projects didn't fail then.
But then the Government closed CCTA down in the 1990s, because the industry said they could do a better job on their own...
I remember it well. I started work in 1981 as a trainee programmer with the PO DPE and we relied on the work and followed the standards of the CCTA.
Before my time, the GPO built Colossus and introduced computerised billing to the UK via the LEO 326...the public sector was a shining star in technological developments.
And no doubt as one who was sipping from the public purse (and indeed had it been silk I hoped but do not anticipate that it should have been factored from a Sows Ear) this will be published in the full under any of the licenses that allow full replication.
Or would it be a trifle, if not a tad, unreasonable to expect an MP who was paid for the work that she documents to give it freely back to those who gave her the chance to do it? How silly of me - now we have to pay our employees to tell us how other employees are misbehaving.
Poor old Fats Waller - nowadays he'd have to sing
"Not a Chair(man), not a paid man, just saving all my shit for you"
Whilst I make not a single comment as to the veracity of the links this finds (Gosh I too should be either a liar, or that and in parliament; some readers may care to try googling this set of search terms
margaret hodge islington council child abuse
I am sure and certain that if the statements made in those links were inaccurate that there would be legal action to retract them. As I am also certain that if it hasn't happened then there are perfectly good reasons that as someone who is not an MP, nor enlightened enough to understand, I will be only too happy to apologise for, if this has caused any unreasonable distress.
But Hey, how can a google query cause distress? Haven't we got some EU act that allows these things to be removed if distressing?
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