Fixing minutiae

There are many wise heads in senior positions in Whitehall (and many who think themselves wise, but they are easily run around). The upper levels of the Civil Service are staffed by the best of those who are allowed through the flawed selection process.

In that case, why is everything that comes out of government a bit rubbish?

The chain of action

I have observed the top brains making high-level decisions to mould policy from policy, which decisions are then passed down to the lesser levels to flesh out the practicalities; then these decisions (through however many levels are required) eventually come down to the junior level to put into effect.

At that junior level there may be bright sparks, but mainly those who just want to do a day’s work according to their best understanding of instructions, and go home. They have not sat in the top-level meetings where the strategy is grown and the purposes are defined, and get the idea only through Chinese whispers.

A jobbing clerk has little incentive nor ability to “own” a project. Work to the end of the day, play safe, do not be shouted at – do not use initiative. You can see everyday carelessness in detail such as documents written on computers still set up with Microsoft defaults, US-English and font styles never used n the text, or forms which look nice but which cannot be completed on-screen without reformatting. You can see it in forms which cannot cope with variants in personal circumstances or understanding.

Form design could be a whole volume of jeremiad. Perhaps the junior officers tasked with it are told not to spend too much time, but it is a false economy as every shortcut can cause an exponential effect of wasted time when members of the public try to grapple with it.

In the detail of regulations too, the same effect is seen.  I lose track of the number of times I have had to intervene in a consultation on new regulations to point out the obvious that has been misunderstood or just passed over as tedious detail.

In 2007 a draft Statutory Instrument was printed referring to such countries as ‘Portuguese Timor’, ‘Kampuchea’, ‘Zaire’ and (amazingly) ‘Cyrenaica’. Intervention at the public consultation stage was able to flag the issue up before the Instrument was published. (Even so, the enacted SI still has Portuguese Timor and Zaire, amongst other anachronisms.)

Details are off-putting to those with better things to do with their limited time, but detail matters because it is the level at which members of the public interact with the state.

Furthermore, every failure at the interface requires more work, more calls to helplines, more repetition, more frustration and more justification for the individual circumventing the system my misreporting. Failure in detail costs money and frustrates the purpose of the government activity concerned.

Political style

It makes no sense for the government at the political level to say that they are in favour of, say, equal treatment of every part of the realm if documents produced at the junior level forget the existence of Scotland and Ulster, or mention them only as an add-on. When the government is committed to preserving British interests, it makes no sense if online forms refer to the Falkland Islands as the ‘Malvinas’ (which is the case in some drop-downs I have found).

Where there is a fixed political policy which should be reflected across the board in government communications and actions, there should be consistency.

Away from policy, there are also fixed standards which may mean nothing to middle- and junior-level officials but which are important in the wider scheme of things: for example in any publication referring the armed forces, one always say “naval and military” not “military and naval”, because the Royal Navy is the senior service. How many would be aware of that one? Grammatical standards, presentational style and good practice – all are should be kept up to ensure the government machine not only works but is respected.

One cannot expect every individual in the civil service to be aware of every political or stylistic policy possibly affecting what he or she is doing by drudge -work though, so consideration is needed as to how to bring consistency to the sprawling machinery of government. Some better communication of policy priorities is a possibility but it can only have a limited effect given how mealy-mouthed government communications are and given the limited hours there are in a day for a junior official to do his or her work. Therefor another approach is needed.


The complexity of the chain of command suggests a high risk of failure.  Experience shows this happens very frequently. There are systems in place to minimise the failures, but systems create their own inflexibilities, and there will be no committee tasked with correcting errors, no cross-departmental thinking and no method of intervention.

In that case, Whitehall needs a mechanism for direct intervention could be deployed when a system has gone awry. This is micro-intervention.

A μ-intervention unit would be cross-departmental, operating out of the Cabinet Office or Privy Council Office (or even the Lord Chancellor’s department, since the Lord Chancellor in days of old was responsible for standards in official documents).

It is little use if it just writes standards that might not be followed: that is useless on its own. In any case there are committees writing standards, as for example in the digital realm the Government Digital Service and the ‘Design Community’ do – and yet forms are still written badly.

No – a micro-intervention unit would need authority to dig into systems at every level, accessing computers directly to fix mistakes and make improvements.

It is petty detail that they would strike at, but with the intent to save more time, more money, and improve the practical interface between the citizen and the state.

See also