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Accountability, Whitehall and IT

CDsI haven’t written anything here about the HMRC missing discs scandal as yet, but a post by Never Trust a Hippy (one of the most thoughtful Labour bloggers) and some conversations with social democrats from other European countries here in Brussels has brought me to write something.

First of all, the civil service itself. All of the fire has been turned on a junior official who wrongly sent the discs. OK, he or she probably made an error. But that individual was probably working in a chaotic, understaffed team, reduced to the bone in terms of staff numbers due to headcount reductions thanks to the Gershon review – so the government can get a few decent headlines to show it’s reducing waste. The person was probably inadequately trained (training budgets get slashed, even before staffing numbers get hit), poorly managed, demoralised, and at no point encouraged to be responsible and accountable for their actions. You can’t care too much about your job as a civil servant after all. To cope with the headcount reductions, the civil servant in question will also have had to deal with plenty of external contractors, including IT suppliers, and probably had fractious relations with those people too – see this from Michael Cross about the problems dealing with government IT contracts.

So what do you do about it? I asked Helena what would happen in Sweden if Skatteverket (the equivalent of HMRC) had lost personal data CDs, and whether a Minister would be put under pressure in the same way as Alistair Darling was. Her answer was a resounding ‘no’ – it’s an administrative matter, and the head of Skatteverket would have to face the press. Politicians would only get involved if the role or strategy of Skatteverket needed to be looked at. This reflects some of the argument in this Jenni Russell article that mentions Charles Clarke’s resignation over foreign prisoner numbers – British Ministers are politically and administratively accountable, and it’s the latter part that leads to their downfall. Should it be the job of ministers to administratively check what all the civil servants in their department are doing? In stark contrast to a Chief Executive of a company, Ministers cannot influence who they work with in a department – the promotion (or not) of civil servants is outside their control, the numbers of SpAds is too small to change matters that much, and what a civil servant puts in a briefing to a Minister is more determined by what their civil service superiors think than what it is the Minister will actually want to know.

So the HMRC problems will subside. Life will go on. Numbers of Whitehall civil servants will be pared back even further. Then next month Ruth Kelly will be knocked by some administrative problem with the maintenance of the railways, John Hutton will get a hit when some gas pipe breaks down, and Ed Balls will get criticized for not making sure that safety standards in school labs are not high enough when some kids get injured in an explosion in a chemistry class. I’ve of course made all of those up, but you get the idea.


2 Comments

  • Ralf Grahn |

    Jon, I think you are on the right track.

    Ministers (and ministries) should guide their administrations in three ways:
    * norms (legislation)
    * resources (staff and money)
    * goals (and follow-up).

    Scape-goats created by media have a Byzantine ring about them.

  • Tim Worstall |

    The only slight problem we have with this analysis is that the CDs were not solely the responsibility of the junior civil servant. We know that he was following correct procedure, and that more senior managers had signed off on it. He was, in fact, following the protocol.
    Far from it being a mistake, something he shouldn’t have done, he was in fact following all of the rules.
    That is something politicians should be held responsible for.

So, what do you think ?