Getting back to competence

The government system has been failing badly for over a year. The excuse is COVID-19. More human factors should take the blame. Recent years should that the system can become competent and efficient, and we must claw that back.

The idea of bureaucracy as universally bumbling petty clerks, tickboxes, computer-says-no and all that has some truth behind it, but looking back at pre-lockdown days, it was quite efficient in many respects, thanks to the systems. Systems can be inflexible and infuriating, but they do carry the majority of business through, and when computerised systems do the donkey-work it allows the brains of the human element to do their job. I never realised how efficient it could be until it stopped being.

The lockdown came. Staff were sent home. The carefully prepared systems stopped working. The COVID excuse could excuse any failure. Once there is an unarguable excuse, failure is inevitable.

Nevertheless, there has been an astounding success in this same time: the vaccination programme. It shows that systems can work when there are dedicated minds and dedicated hands behind it. That sort of efficiency can be brought to the rest of government as we coming out of lockdown.

For now, systems that were once efficient are in collapse. Sometimes it might have been bad planning: talk to any solicitor for more than a few minutes and you will be told about the fall of the Land Registry’s. This was the most efficient of government bodies, certifying land ownership for a fee unchanged for many years, as costs decreased with efficient systems, processing applications almost by return. Then the lockdown hit and staff were sent home. Perhaps managers assumed that sales and leases would stop in lockdown, but in fact after the initial shock the market barely slowed. Without the staff on hand to handle the continuing workflow, registrations they would once have processed by return are taking several months, and those that would have been a week now get an estimated completion time of over a year. This must hit the liquidity of the property market.

Similar tales can be told of passport applications, driving licence applications and other: applications are piled up for months awaiting someone to look at them. Dedicated staff are frustrated, while others are comforted that they COVID gives them a cast-iron excuse, and if those few staff slow down and stop, the rest have no workflow to deal with.

A danger in the phrase ‘the new normal’ is that we will not get back to where we were. Staff will continue to work from home, or work in inverted commas; the target times for processing things will be set by today’s appalling standards; driving licence applications will still be piled high for four months before being processed; passport applications will either hang around until the holidays are over, or to catch up they may be processed too quickly to check for the frauds. The telephones will not be answered, because it has been so restful not to deal with calls, and emails lie unseen.

The vaccination programme shows that the civil service can work hard and well, bulldozing barriers to what is needed. There, COVID-19 was not an excuse but a driving force.

In the commercial world there is no “new normal”: we work to achieve results. The civil service must have no new normal either, unless the new normality is the efficiency shown by the vaccine drive.

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Author: AlexanderTheHog

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

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