A system failing in the middle

Two types of failing constitutional systems attract overstretched metaphors, for which I should apologise in advance. The first is built as a high, impressive building with soaring arches and glittering pinnacles, but where all is built for show while the unseen foundations are made of cheap rubble: that structure cannot stand in a storm. The other is built on a rock-solid foundation but the superstructure is put together inconsistently and in a slapdash manner, and that will break too, although reparably. The British Constitution is this second type. It is possible to fix this, identifying the inconsistencies and poor choices of material, as long as no one damages the foundation.

The structure of government has been built in a series of reforms inspired by prevailing orthodoxy and though that orthodoxy may have been discarded by the next generation, its legacy remains. We may consider the number of quangos established at many points for narrow purposes which have been left in place ‘just in case’ or repurposed when they should have been abolished. These are a visible application of the principle: what is invisible is the tangle of responsibilities, or avoidances of responsibility, within the Civil Service itself.

Whitehall believes in systems. A system is the only way to deal with millions of complex matters at a time. More importantly, a system is the only way to avoid responsibility for individual decisions: proving compliance with a checklist is a free pass out of criticism. It may be honest to say that the system is to blame, but it must be the responsibility of everyone who works with a system to checking its suitability in all the circumstances that may be thrown at it. That requires stepping outside the system, looking, testing random real and fictional scenarios, and fixing the errors as they are revealed. The Civil Service may not be up to that job. Changing recruitment and promotion can improve it.

Getting the right personnel in the Civil Service is not a question of choosing the Apollonian over the Dionysian character or vice versa nor of finding Gell-Mann’s Odysseans: for a complex system to work well, it must have a mixture of characters. This includes a mixture of political and social attitudes, as Jordan Peterson has explained it. No society can thrive without a mixture of characters: those whose imaginations can create novelty and those whose drive is to create order, because without order, the system cannot stay stable, and is not a system at all, but without chaotic creativity there ossification.

Lack of diversity then is hampering the Civil Service, and I do not mean tick-box categories of race, sex etc, but diverse characters and viewpoints. Without this real diversity, the service cannot operate properly any more than a society could operate. It takes a divergent take on any situation to find the flaws in an accepted method and to challenge orthodoxies.

There is no conspiracy to mediocrity. Senior staff will naturally replicate themselves at all levels. It is natural in all of us to assume that our own attitudes and priorities are right and therefore to discount those held by others as weird or foolish, and therefore in a system which selects its own successors, a single mindset must prevail and become more entrenched as years pass.  If a workforce is made up of staff all with the same turn of mind, this situation must also reinforce each individual’s solipsistic belief in his own rightness and suppress doubts. Where promotion is dependent on peer-approval, it is the most colourless individuals who must rise and re-enforce their type’s monopoly position.

Recruitment to the Civil Service is strained through the same assumptions. The Civil Service aptitude tests assume a single neurological process and certain priorities, but this excludes alternative, equally valid approaches. It has not been framed in this way deliberately but as part of that self-reinforcing principle.

We used to laugh at this sort of thing when it happened abroad: the Chinese civil service in the imperial days used to select its members on national and provincial levels by a set of exams the terms of which were written centuries before, testing candidates on ancient Confucian theory, not on modern practicality. Innovation was squashed and the Empire fell into decrepitude. It ended only in 1905, by which time the empire was about to fall.

To break the uniformity is a major challenge, because it goes against natural processes. The most successful at this have been those with radical left-wing motives, as they too are wedded to systems and push themselves forward though fair means or foul so as to get the power to change those systems. That is not the right sort of diversity though; only another lot of systems-people, and with odd ideas too. The challenge is to bring different mindsets and ways of seeing things.

It has been pointed out by Mr Cummings and Mr Gove that senior civil servants largely come with an arts-subject background. That is no bad thing for an individual and cultivates the mind well, but a monopoly all in that limited field is dangerous. A thousand years ago Ælfric urged the reason we are given two eyes, two ears and two nostrils for our more complete edification. You cannot understand the implications of a statistical analysis from a study of Horace, but you cannot understand people from mathematics. Now, in fact, there is more diversity than that in academic achievement among senior civil servants, if a few too many economists. I would suggest that the main failure in diversity is diversity of character, or neurological diversity perhaps, and that will take longer to break.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short