Hercules diverted a river to clean the Augean Stables, so a Hard Rain is quite a modest response.
Still, it will have to be a very hard rain indeed to change bureaucracy. Standing outside, it is incomprehensible but one feels a slight guilt at doubting the dedicated work presumed to go on behind the walls of Whitehall and of endless agencies and offices the purpose of which is unknown even to those who work there.
Robert Conquest’s Laws of Politics notes cynically that “The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”
To prove or disprove Conquest’s observation, the lid is to be ripped off the obscure world of bureaucracy, and what it reveals may be embarrassing or may correct misassumptions. The senior civil servants reassure us they are misunderstood, but that is itself misunderstanding the complaint: the target is a system, which is the collective network of individuals, who are individually dedicated to their roles, but somehow collectively getting things wrong and spaffing the taxpayers’ money up the wall as they do so. The test is not good intent: it is good achievement.
Governments have tried for decades to get over failures by hiring more brains. It has not worked, so it must be something else going wrong.
One thing observed, by one who is preparing the rain machine, that there seems to be no sanction for the individuals whose failures they are – just move on and up to another position, and watch it fail too. That cosy system will be opened up to the hard rain. On the other hand, you have to ask why someone with a head full of brains and a team working with them will goof so disastrously as we have seen so often. That may come down to the inability to handle novelty, because novelty is outside the expertise of the person entrusted with it.
The obvious response to novelty outside ones expertise, and the criticism that will descend, is to establish systems and practices in place of actual action: and therefore the biggest efforts are in risk-avoidance and back-covering, not achievement of allotted tasks.
This looks not like Conquest’s rule, but very like the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
Invoking the Peter Principle leads me on, for what happens in Whitehall is a mystery to most of us, glimpsed only through satire. There is Parkinson’s Law too, starting with “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”, but Parkinson went a great deal further in his book about the rise of increasingly bulbous bureaucracies, and is worth dusting off and re-reading.
I hope that these satirical observations are just that, but each example of failure appearing in the press, and each interaction I have with the higher levels of bureaucracy seems to suggest they are accurate.
The obligatory COVID-19 reference comes in here. There is a two-edged sword reaction to the Civil Service’s response in lockdown: firstly they showed that speedy action is possible, but secondly that they can work perfectly well, and arguably better, when they have sent most of their staff home and restricted themselves just to urgent work. This suggests that the people are not at fault but that the system which the senior officers impose on those people is at fault, as the problems are eliminated when it is lifted. Further, the ability to work better with a skeleton staff suggests a major redundancy in capacity.
Recently this blog carried an analysis of one systemic failure in bureaucracy, which (if I can summarise so briefly) is the tendency, through natural means, to ossify into a homogenous block with no variety in character nor accordingly much breadth of thought. Many similar observations have been made by commentators: another ‘law’, by Robert Michels, is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, or a version by John O’Sullivan, one of Margaret Thatcher’s advisers), that “Any organization not explicitly right–wing sooner or later becomes left–wing” (presumably because those of a conservative mind are willing to hire anyone who can do the job, but those on the left-wing will hire only other left-wingers). Perhaps the Little Hobb version would be that “Any organisation will coalesce into a small range of character-traits”.
The point of the civil service however is not to make jobs for the sort of people who coalesce there: it is to achieve the ambitions of the elected politicians. If they are unable competently to handle novelty then they must give way to those who can, and that means leaving the service to do the bare minimum clerking work and going outside for actual expertise. That immediately hits a bigger wall: the Civil Service is unable to procure contracts competently, so they cannot go outside.
The result of all these factors suggests that the Civil Service is dedicated indeed and full of highly intelligent men and women but for solid reasons is unable to do what it is there to do. Bureaucracy in indeed controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
- Sir Humphrey’s logic
- A system failing in the middle
- The Constitution: mice undermine the wall
- Things they won’t do with the British Constitution
- A Powers and Bodies Act
- The Peter Principle: Why Everything Goes Wrong by Dr Lawrence J Peter and Raymond Hull
- The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History by Robert Conquest
- Political Parties by Robert Michels
- Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner
- The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham (former senior Lord of Appeal)
- Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics by Jonathan Sumption (former Justice of the Supreme Court)
- Constitutional & Administrative Law by Neil Parpworth
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray