Porous Hilton - RSA

Porous Hilton


It is interesting to read the comments of former Downing Street policy guru Steve Hilton and the reaction to them.

According to reports, Hilton turned up at a seminar at Stanford University with a one foot tall pile of papers and told his audience this was the product of just a few days of Government announcements. Apparently, he went on to say:

"Very often you'll wake up in the morning and hear on the radio or the news or see something in the newspapers about something the government is doing. And you think, well, hang on a second – it's not just that we didn't know it was happening, but we don't even agree with it! The government can be doing things … and we don't agree with it? How can that be?”

Hilton said he was shocked to find that only about a third of Government activity could be related directly to the implementation of the Coalition agreement.

I can guess most of what else Steve said because I heard him give what sounds like exactly the same talk at a Chatham House seminar at LSE a few months ago: he also brought the pile of paper which means that unless he lugged the whole lot across the Atlantic, it is a symbolic prop.

On the basis that he has himself broken the embargo on his comments I thought I might share some of the responses that he received from the LSE audience of academics, the substance of which he largely accepted under questioning.

Before doing so I should recognise that my former putative nemesis Damian McBride has offered his own interesting and well informed explanation for Hilton’s frustration, suggesting it is all down to Number Ten taking its eye off the infamous Downing Street grid. It sounds like Damian knows what he is talking about and when I worked in Number Ten the grid certainly was at the centre of planning and messaging. Although it was also the case, as time went on, that more and more grid meetings became collective laments about self-inflicted wounds caused by Government reports and announcements which it was simply too late to stop.

Here are three other critiques of the Hilton’s view that the problem is all to do with bureaucracy and bureaucrats (including European Union ones of course).

In truth, aren’t most decisions in most organisations only loosely related to the core mission? The RSA is an infinitely smaller and less complex beast than central Government yet if I asked for every decision that is made here to be reported to me every day I would no doubt find most had little to do directly with enhancing global human capability. Equipment and supplies must bought and maintained, junior staff appointed, detailed decisions about research projects made, external relationships managed, legal and accounting requirement fulfiled etc.

More specifically for Government, it is always the case with the Queens Speech – summarising the legislation to be tabled in the next Parliamentary session - that a high proportion of it is tidying up, amending in the light of new circumstances, honoring long standing but no longer particularly salient commitments. Nor is all of this adding extra regulatory burdens (as Hilton also implies), quite of lot is intended to simplify matters, even if this isn’t always the outcome. So, while there is bound to have been stuff in Hilton’s one foot pile which was not necessary or distracting I am willing to bet most of its was both largely irrelevant to the core mission of the Government AND necessary.

Under questioning it was also clear from Steve that many of the problems with political management were the result of coalitionary Government: On the one hand, the complexity of running parallel processes of political clearance, on the other, the required policy span of each special advisor given David Camerons commitment to employing fewer SpAds and the fact that overall complement had to be divided between the two parties.

Finally, it was suggested to Hilton and, to be fair, he didn’t strongly disagree, that Downing Street had been rather naïve at the outset of the Government’s term . When I met the first head of policy in Number Ten a few months after the election he told me that everyone was united across Whitehall and that he only needed small team of political advisors as he could rely on the good and united intentions of other departments, including the Treasury. In vain did I warn him that things would change, but after the ghastliness of the later years of Blair Brown he was keen to believe that his Government could avoid Whitehall factionalism. Within eighteen months he had resigned.

In relation to any significant policy, and even if the Coalition parties are agreed, – there will be three different perspectives: Number Ten’s which will – or should- focus on the overall strategic coherence and message of Government, the Treasury’s which will be obsessed with money and quantitative measurement, and the department which will often have sponsored the policy in question and have an eye to the stakeholders it has to deal with every day. Notwithstanding the shameful disfunctionality of internal Government relations under late Blair and Brown (something on which the aforementioned McBride will no doubt have strong views), at its best this tripartite system subjects all policy to effective and reasonably comprehensive pre-scrutiny both in the formal setting of cabinet committees (where other ministers can often act as adjudicators) and in more ad hoc communication between ministers and between officials.

But in the early stages of this Government, Number Ten – partly, I suspect as a result of the personal closeness between Cameron and Osborne - simply didn’t get that it had to be a strong voice in policy debates. As a consequence the deal making in Whitehall was overeen by the Treasury (HMT always tends to have more power in periods of austerity) and ran along the lines of ‘as long as you don’t spend more money than we are willing to give you, you can do whatever damn thing you like’.

This helps to explain why there were so many flawed policies and U-turns in the Coalition’s first two years. And also why the PM’s big and commendable idea of the Big Society was allowed to wither on the vine.

So, Steve Hilton’s insights are well worth listening to and it may indeed be – as the eminent Lord Hennessy has said – that relations between minsters and civil servants are now at an all-time low. But I suspect it is also the case that in his interpretation of what went wrong, Steve is being no less political as a commentator than he was as an insider.

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