Even if Alistair Darling offers an austerity budget, one level of bureaucracy will emerge unscathed
The Observer, Sunday 19 April 2009
If the typical beneficiary of the 1945 Labour government was the common man, who returned from war to be rewarded with the welfare state, and the typical beneficiary of the 1979 Conservative government was the aspiring man, who was freed to buy his home and start his business, the classic beneficiary of the 1997 Labour government must be the form-filling man, who was rewarded with a lavish salary for monitoring and chivvying others.
With a growing national debt threatening to push the country into bankruptcy, he ought to be the target of popular anger. But the public is turning against bureaucrats and its widespread denunciations of “managers” miss the real area of bloated growth. A hospital manager performs as essential a service as a doctor. Without his or her organisational skills, the NHS could not function. A more emblematic Labour figure is Cynthia Bower, a civil servant who has made a career from box-ticking. She failed to spot that hundreds of patients were dying before their time in Stafford Hospital. Nevertheless, the Department of Health promoted her from monitoring the West Midlands’ health service to the £200,000 post at the Care Quality Commission, where she must monitor standards in all the health service.
In “The Audit Explosion”, a prophetic pamphlet written in 1994, Michael Power, an academic authority on accounting, anticipated the Cynthia Bowers of our day. He predicted that the new craze for targets and reviews would “spread a distinct mentality of administrative control” which would undermine trust and encourage the proliferation of empty gestures. The embrace by government of targets and supervisors would bring a “major shift in power from the public to the professional and from teachers, engineers and managers to overseers,” he wrote. Although the form-fillers claimed to deliver transparency and accountability, they were in fact engaged in a “peculiar form of alchemy” that turned workers into “auditees” who did what they had to do to meet a target.
Power’s predictions were mistaken in two respects only: he did not guess – for how could he? – that the one institution Labour would fail to regulate would be the one all its centre-left history told it had to be regulated – the banking industry. And he failed to appreciate the cost of regulating all those other institutions that did not need armies of auditors descending on them.
Putting a price on the form-fillers taxpayers employ strikes me as close to impossible. You would not only have to survey the whole state sector but take into account the huge number of management consultants and IT designers who have been invited in to drink long and deep at the public teat.
All I can do is show the waste in miniature by looking at the probation service, a small branch of the criminal justice system I have covered on and off for years. On paper, probation officers should be able to continue protecting the public and encouraging criminals to go straight. Certainly, their finances will tighten as cuts beckon, but they ought to have plenty of fat to spare because Gordon Brown threw funds at their service in the bubble years. From 2001 to 2007, the probation budget increased by 21% in real terms.
And yet for all his munificence, the number of qualified probation officers declined by 4%. Public money went on managers engaged in constant reorganisations. First, we had Noms (the National Offender Management Service) which the Ministry of Justice sub-divided into Roms (Regional Offender Management Services) and when it deemed that they had not succeeded, it reorganised the Roms into Doms (Directors of Offender Management Services).
Worse than the administrative costs was a disastrous flirtation with computing. As with so many other government departments, the undoubted efficiency savings new technology offered led managers into techno-utopian fantasies. Civil servants at head office dreamt of being able to monitor every prisoner along with the performance of the staff who guarded them.
They demanded more than 800 tweaks to the planned system so they could realise Jeremy Bentham’s dream of panoptic supervision at the press of a button. As they added more demands, the projected costs rose from £234m to £690m. Last month, after the scheme had collapsed under the weight of its own grandiose ambition, Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, observed: “This committee hears of troubled government projects all too frequently, but the litany of failings in this case are in a class of their own.”
Harry Fletcher, of the probation union, Napo, estimates that Labour has wasted about £1bn on botched probation initiatives. Not a large sum when there is talk of the national debt rising to £180bn, I grant you, but as a US senator once quipped: “A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon it adds up to real money.”
With Alistair Darling preparing to anticipate the next Conservative government by announcing an austerity budget, it seems obvious that ministers should look for savings by first cutting managers and IT consultants. I do not think they will because the centralised system they preside over has trapped them. England has no effective local government with tax-raising and spending powers.
Ministers have allowed the explosion in the numbers of form-fillers because they have to pretend they can monitor the delivery of services. Like witch doctors chanting spells, they must recite from efficiency reviews to sustain the electorate’s illusion that government is in control of public services which, in reality, are too big and complicated for the most brilliant bureaucrats in the world to manage from a command post in London.
Cuts may target form-fillers while sparing front-line staff only if they are accompanied by a revolution in government. As there is no prospect of revolution coming, the auditors will survive and prosper long after the Labour government that has pampered them to excess has gone.