How to get things done

There is a way to organise, to remove the ineffectiveness that plagues Whitehall. The current system is fine-tuned to fail: deadlock to inaction is built in by design, as the last thirteen years have shown. Now that Whitehall is faced with an impossible labour, replacing all Brussels laws, a new way to do things is vital.

There is a known solution, described by John Stuart Mill, one of the few non-Hobbesians who is quoted on this site with honour.

A committee, which takes minutes and wastes hours, is an efficient way to do nothing. There is no need to repeat all the faults of committees, as we all know them.  Beyond the commonplace remarks, a committee is a way to bring together a range of thoughts and insights into likely consequences, but it is drawn from a narrow range of experience, and the system is devised to avoid personal responsibility, and to prevent coherent decision. One strident voice on a committee can cast doubt in the collective wisdom and prevent the overwhelming majority from making a decision there and then – it is something I have done often enough myself.

What remarkable system of work was it then that Mills described? –

This mode of conducting the highest class of administrative business is one of the most successful instances of the adaptation of means to ends which political history, not hitherto very prolific in works of skill and contrivance, has yet to show.

He refers to the system by which India was ruled in the latter days of the Company. It took the strengths of the committee system but eliminated its basic flaws. He wrote:

The relation which ought to exist between a chief and this description of advisers is very accurately hit by the constitution of the Council of the Governor General and those of the different Presidencies in India. These councils are composed of persons who have professional knowledge of Indian affairs, which the governor general and governors usually lack, and which it would not be desirable to require of them. As a rule, every member of council is expected to give an opinion, which is of course very often a simple acquiescence; but if there is a difference of sentiment, it is at the option of every member, and is the invariable practice, to record the reasons of his opinion, the governor general, or governor, doing the same. In ordinary cases the decision is according to the sense of the majority; the council, therefore, has a substantial part in the government; but if the governor general, or governor, thinks fit, he may set aside even their unanimous opinion, recording his reasons. The result is, that the chief is individually and effectively responsible for every act of the government. The members of council have only the responsibility of advisers; but it is always known, from documents capable of being produced, and which, if called for by Parliament or public opinion always are produced, what each has advised, and what reasons he gave for his advice; while, from their dignified position, and ostensible participation in all acts of government, they have nearly as strong motives to apply themselves to the public business, and to form and express a well−considered opinion on every part of it, as if the whole responsibility rested with themselves.

This simple description (in his work “Considerations on a Representative Government“) sets out an effective governing structure in which all councillors may contribute, and so the Governor has the benefit of their wisdom, and in which collaborative decision-making can be effective: but it has the crucial distinction that the Governor and councillors all take personal responsibility, and where, if the committee is deadlocked, the Governor will decide and act.

One might think that councillors would be cynical about their role, knowing they are constitutionally powerless, as the Governor will decide on his own. In practice the councillors are incentivised to work hard and be part of a collective decision.

Width of experience in important in a council or a committee. In considering which Brussels rules of farming should be kept and which swept away or liberalised, there is little point having a committees manned with London-cloistered civil servants who cannot tell a cow from a bullock: that sort of impractical ignorance is why Brussels made it illegal to bury a dead sheep. Proper consideration needs farmers to lead, and those who know the specific regulations sitting beside them.

Generally, civil servants are open to outside advice. I have been involved with many consultations: the clerks in office know that they are ignorant of the realities in the fields they govern and so they ask for public comment from those in the relevant trade. It is a slow process though; a simple statutory instrument can take two years to settle. There is no time for that now: the Jacob Rees Mogg deadline at which all Brussels laws will expire is eleven months away. The committee system and the consultation system are incapable of doing the job with any degree of competence.

The path of least resistance, which the mandarins or Whitehall will press, is that every directive, regulation and decision the EU imposed shall be transcribed by copy-and-paste into a British statutory instrument, merely changing the ring of stars to the royal arms and removing the Slovenian translation. That is missing the point entirely: each imposition must be weighed in the balance and found wanting, or wanted. It may be kept only if objectively justified, and not out of mere caution.  For that we need Mill’s governors and their councils (if not by those names).

Therefore we come back to Mill. Each field of burden and regulation must be examined by a council constituted for the purpose, appointed by the minister in charge, and at its head not a chairman but a decisionmaker, guided but not bound by the council, whose sole decision will decide life or death to a regulation. On his or her voice alone, rules are repealed or repeated (or placed before the House to be). “This … is one of the most successful instances of the adaptation of means to ends … which political history… has yet to show”.

I would hope that they also have to hand and heart a copy of On Liberty.

Is it possible, even by this method, to achieve all this within the time allotted?

Depend upon it , sir; when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

The impossible sunset deadline is to be held for two reasons: it is the only way to stop the bureaucracy from prevaricating; and it will distract them into a practical endeavour, to keep their hands out other petty interference.

Mill of course was not writing of Brexit but of India with a view that his observations be of wider application.  The lesson which can be learnt from applying this governor-council system can be applied to many fields of administration.  One might not name the decisionmakers as ‘governors’ – perhaps ‘executives’ or ‘commissioners’ or just ‘decisionmakers’. Those involved need not be drawn from the civil service: there is a good case for contracting functions out to private firms, more attuned t their client’s needs, as I have written before.

In this way the Whitehall deadlock can be lifted, as long as councillors with the right experience are drawn in, and sound decisionmakers are chosen.

See also


Author: AlexanderTheHog

A humble scribbler who out of my lean and low ability will lend something to Master Hobbes