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“Imagine being asked to chair a big organisation with a multibillion-pound turnover….you find that while you as chairman will be accountable for everything, your chief executive will be accountable for almost nothing, has little management experience, cannot be removed and – in common with the rest of the workforce – will not in fact ultimately work for you at all.”

This is how former ministers Nick Herbert (Conservative ) and John Healey (Labour) launched their new cross-party group, GovernUp, in The Times this morning. Sir Humphrey is failing his brilliant ministers. He’s not experienced enough. The machinery of government doesn’t work. He is setting a prime minister and his ministers at an immediate disadvantage. “Tomorrow’s government will need to be leaner, smarter at commissioning, better organised and more responsive to citizens.” New technology and the machine needs to be fixed. And politicians – ‘The Chairman’-  are just the people to do it.

It’s funny because it is almost as if this were a parallel world to the one written about in Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s The Blunders of Government. I guess Sir Humphrey’s implementation was to blame for the Poll Tax, the Child Support Agency, the failure of public-private partnerships for the tube, Railtrack, and numerous other recent debacles?

Crewe and King see failure in the policy-making process. That Mr Chairman is driven by you. These failures include ‘ministerial hyper-activism’, ‘cultural disconnect’ (ie people respond very differently to new policies than expected), a deficit of deliberation (ie ministers driving forward initiatives without real consultation), a deficit of accountability (those responsible for disasters have gone by the time the disaster is clear), and operational disconnect (those who craft the policy fail to consult those who will actually be putting it into practice).

So GovernUp aims to fix the machine so politicians, who are pretty much responsible all the major blunders that we see, can become more hyper-active, less deliberative, and, in all likelihood, less accountable too.

It’s very convenient for politicians to lay the blame at the feet of Sir Humphrey but it is also a tad too easy. It also happens to miss the point.

What is needed is not a better machine with better drivers, engineering and technology. Actually, there needs to be a complete rethink for how Government works. State economic command was abandoned because it is impossible for Government to see and respond to trillions of pieces of real time data. So it is with public services. There are no people clever enough or technology smart enough to replace the adaptability of direct contact with those who need, use and want public services. It requires constant interaction with people, between institutions, and a capacity for flexible adaptation.

Without a real distribution of power to creative institutions and communities of support then clunky, ill-adapted, systems will remain. We use machine metaphors when describing the state. Instead, there is a need for cultural metaphors. If we were to see the state as an untold number of complex interactions then we might begin to engineer it around people’s real complexity of needs.

Elsewhere today, the Commission on the Future of Health and Social Care in Britain has published its interim report. It demonstrates how the two systems of health and social care, each with a different logic, funding methodology, and entitlement rules, work in friction. It shows how our demand for health and social care is already escalating and will continue to do so. The notion that Government will be able to do anything other than set the basic rules of the game – entitlement, standards, and resourcing – for a combined health and social care system is in the realm of fantasy. These enormous systems will need to be completely reconfigured around the needs of the individual rather than the system. It is about both quality and efficiency of care.

It is through professionals interfacing with individual needs and having the freedom, motivation and power to adapt that we have any chance at all of improving standards and not swamping ourselves with an unfundable burden.

This is the real debate we should be having: how do we create cultures around people that enable them to better meet their needs? Who has more control between Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey entirely misses the point. It is convenient for ministers of all parties who want to have it slightly easier when it comes to having their way. But as Crewe and King show, that will just lead to even bigger blunders. Instead of GovernUp, how about PowerUp for all those involved in providing public services and those who rely on them? That is how to make the governance of Britain better in the future. It will also make lives better too.


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