Mill against the bureaucracy

The word ‘Bureaucracy’ means ‘Rule by the office’, and the dull office does indeed rule all. The word started as a jibe and a warning of a tyranny of clerks, and is now accepted as the established form of government.

The complaints of politicians against the intransigence of Whitehall mandarins is justifiably met the retort with ‘Well why have you done nothing about it in the last 13 years?’ Is there anything that can be done though?

John Stuart Mill was not as modern liberals are, ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly use’ but had his own liberal philosophy grounded on practical reality, which in a way made him more Hobbesian than he would have cared to be thought.  He observed sagely of the ways of the bureaucracy:

But where everything is done through the bureaucracy, nothing to which the bureaucracy is really adverse can be done at all.

The constitution of such countries is an organisation of the experience and practical ability of the nation, into a disciplined body for the purpose of governing the rest; and the more perfect that organisation is in itself, the more successful in drawing to itself and educating for itself the persons of greatest capacity from all ranks of the community, the more complete is the bondage of all, the members of the bureaucracy included.

For the governors are as much the slaves of their organisation and discipline, as the governed are of the governors. A Chinese mandarin is as much the tool and creature of a despotism as the humblest cultivator. An individual Jesuit is to the utmost degree of abasement the slave of his order, though the order itself exists for the collective power and importance of its members.

It is not, also, to be forgotten, that the absorption of all the principal ability of the country into the governing body is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself. Banded together as they are—working a system which, like all systems, necessarily proceeds in a great measure by fixed rules—the official body are under the constant temptation of sinking into indolent routine, or, if they now and then desert that mill-horse round, of rushing into some half-examined crudity which has struck the fancy of some leading member of the corps.

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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.

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Teapotohedral policy

Governing is not about clean lines and simple patterns. The journalists’ trope of one-dimensional left-right politics would come under a Hobbesian definition of Madnesse; no cube nor a tesseract suffices to map idea, and the actual art of governing is a teapotohedon even simplified to its bones.

A graphic designer explained the teapot to me: if you have a cube or a sphere, for example, you can map where light will shine on it or a shadow will fall with simple mathematics, but a teapot has changing curves, concave and convex, a lid and a spout disrupting the surface, a functional interior – all of which must be mapped and worked into each algorithm for determining how it will appear at each angle and how light cast at any angle will reflect or be shadowed. So important is the teapot to designers that one has included it amongst the Platonic solids; the tetrahedron, the cube, the dodecahedron etc, and the teapotohedron.

I was thinking about this as I looked at an area of government policy that is (as are they all) mired in unhelpful politics.

Look at any policy, anyone looking form outside will see only part of it, and not the consequences; where the sun will illuminate or shadows will form, nor know if the path followed will curve up or down or round and in how many dimensions. How can voters be expected to understand why policy should be shaped as it is, and what has cast the shadow – that element on the pot, or a flowerpot standing behind it, or a flaw in the windowpane? We only see a bit at a time, blaming the politicians or the bureaucrats for giving us a clumsy handle, missing the capacious belly, or seeing only the lid. Left to write our own policies, we would all design simple pots we can measure and feel we understand; entirely spherical so that there is no hole to put the tea leaves and water in, no spout to pour from, and which roll off the table and smash in the floor.

It all makes commentary, even voting, akin to playing hoopla in a blindfold.

However the voter is still in a better position than those who make policy: inside the teapot, the view is even worse.

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Privatise the Civil Service

Whitehall is hopeless. It has its irreductible purpose, but most of its failure could be reduced by privatising its operations. Bear with me on this one.

It is not ideological but practical. I have seen how things work and do not work on both sides of the fence. I have spent most of my time in commercial, value-creating work. The latter works and innovates because it is a dog-eat-dog world in which you innovate or perish. In the civil service you do not innovate if you can avoid it, because you will be criticised for departing from protocols established for good reason or, which is worse, for taking an unapproved risk. A failure to innovate though is more than a risk: it is a certain failure. Every commercial business knows this.

Work stuck in a Whitehall process is a promise of failure that would not be tolerated for a moment in the business world. Engaging competing private firms to do the work taps into the fervour of constant improvement which marks the private professional sphere. This is the very opposite of Whitehall practice.

A commercial company does not employ in-house all its own professional needs: if it needs an accountant or a solicitor or an architect, it will go to any one of the innumerable firms out there who provide the service. Those independent professional firms are exposed to the best, and worst practice in the market and they shape their own practices accordingly. They need to provide the best service in order to keep their client, and to be tip-top efficient to keep their fees down for the same reason. If they do not keep up and keep their fees down, the client will disinstruct them and find someone better.

Firms vary in their specialities too:  one architect may be good at restaurants but clueless about office buildings, but there is always an office-building specialist to go to; one solicitor may be the best in the game at negotiating leases but no so hot on corporate financing, but there are other firms who can do that.

In the professions, they can see what others are doing, and many professional magazines circulate with recommendations, updates and market intelligence.  Regulation is by consent, and there to ensure qualifications, honesty and professionalism, not to impose uniformity.  All this ensures that in these professions, efficiency is maximised and prices kept below inflation, and that there is always someone who can do anything.

Think of the contrast with the Civil Service: it is a monopoly, with no active motivation to make changes in practice. Improvements and innovations are made on occasion, on the Adam Smith basis of workers innovating to reduce their workload, but this is a passive approach. It has no rivals with which to make comparisons and take lessons: if a Whitehall desk-wallah does look, for example, at the way things are done in Ottawa or Dublin or Melbourne, he might choose to take it as a lesson, but is not compelled to do so to keep his practice going.

Imagine what could be done if instead of a monolithic, nationalised civil service, jobs were put out to professional firms of administrators. The precedents for this are not promising: the Civil Service are hopeless at procurement and squirt contracts at giant accountancy firms without considering their costs or suitability. If instead there were firms specifically qualified to do administrative work, they could compete at high street level, as other professions do. A minister wants a policy considered?  Go to a big firm of administration consultants.  He wants a technical regulation reformed or a new one written? Go to a high street solicitor with that specialisation (and if there are none now, there soon will be).

Even major policies could best be carried through by those with a financial interest in getting them right, rather than those with a personal or career interest in retarding them: how many initiatives trumpeted by ministers in the last 12 years have founded in the corridors or Whitehall through timidity, indolence or bloodymindedness?  Many, many of them. Those which are most ground-breaking or distasteful-but-necessary can be done by outside professionals.

There was a time when the permanent civil service was small. The whole of India was run by a relatively small staff. Bureaucracy though breeds bureaucracy and justifies its own expansion, and builds a protective wall against its own redundancy, ably assisted by politician’s pledges of bribes to the electorate.

Defend the good intent of hardworking civil servants if you will, but the system is inherently bad. We know that our monolithic health service becomes more and more inefficient because there is no need for it to be anything better, while abroad systems of competing hospitals get better. We know that if any business becomes a monopoly it becomes stodgy, wasteful and arrogant. Why assume that administrators would be any different?

It could be different though.  Open the field to nimble, competing professionals finding their own solutions, eager to please to keep the business and eager to achieve fast outcomes at less costs for the same reason, and all those things we complain about in Whitehall will be gone.

The problem is; government is a monopsony, a single buyer, with little interest in efficiency.

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Adhaerence; credulity; curiosity

Ignorance of remote causes, disposeth men to attribute all events, to the causes immediate, and Instrumentall: For these are all the causes they perceive. And hence it comes to passe, that in all places, men that are grieved with payments to the Publique, discharge their anger upon the Publicans, that is to say, Farmers, Collectors, and other Officers of the publique Revenue; and adhaere to such as find fault with the publike Government; and thereby, when they have engaged themselves beyond hope of justification, fall also upon the Supreme Authority, for feare of punishment, or shame of receiving pardon.

Ignorance of naturall causes disposeth a man to Credulity, so as to believe many times impossibilities: for such know nothing to the contrary, but that they may be true; being unable to detect the Impossibility. And Credulity, because men love to be hearkened unto in company, disposeth them to lying: so that Ignorance it selfe without Malice, is able to make a man bothe to believe lyes, and tell them; and sometimes also to invent them.

Anxiety for the future time, disposeth men to enquire into the causes of things: because the knowledge of them, maketh men the better able to order the present to their best advantage.

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