By Tony Collins
The slogan “take back control” implies Britain is adept at running what it currently controls. But is it?
Ministers and officials now control central government administration. The following summarised case studies give an indication of how well they cope with this task:
– Ministers and senior civil servants lost billions on the National Programme for IT in the NHS after repeatedly telling Parliament of its successes. The scheme was “dismantled” in 2011. Afterwards a new organisation was formed, NHS England, which went from IT disaster to IT disaster.
– The biggest reform in central government, Universal Credit, is, so far, 11 years behind schedule and is the second botched welfare reform programme, the £2.6bn “Operational Strategy” being the first.
– Central government’s largest department, the DWP has had its financial accounts qualified every year for the last 31 years because of high levels of fraud and error. Overpayments and underpayments are now at their highest level since 2005-6.
– The Home Office has gone from IT disaster to IT disaster, as has the Ministry of Justice and the Rural Affairs Agency only sometimes pays farmers the correct amount of subsidy.
– The Emergency Services Network is more than £3.0 over budget and isn’t expected to pay for itself until 2029.
– The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy continues to tell Parliament of the success of its £12bn smart meter rollout programme. But the few dozen latest-generation SMETS2 smart meters installed in Britain’s homes are said to have cost £28m each.
– Last month a report of the National Audit Office said government data is of such poor quality that officials try to steer around it.
– Last week, the Public Accounts Committee’s annual report said, “we see the same pattern of mistakes repeated consistently across Government”.
– It said the same in its 2018 annual report. The repetition of problems and mistakes was “depressingly familiar”.
– When a minister tries to cut what he sees as the exorbitant costs of central government administration, senior civil servants fight against him. Former Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude, who wanted to bring down the costs of central government IT, later lamented the “overt disobedience” of some senior civil servants.
– Transparency in central government is almost non-existent. The LSE found it impossible to establish the costs of central government administration, in part because civil servants keep changing what counts as an administration cost.
As an aside, a look at how well ministers and officials handle the nation’s finances shows that net public sector pension liabilities are £1,865bn, the equivalent of more than £68,000 per UK household and 92% of GDP.
The shortfall between assets and liabilities increased from £2,420bn to £2,565bn in 2017 and borrowing rose by £58bn – far more than the entire “Brexit divorce bill” of £39bn.
[Medical negligence claims on their own stood at £78.4 billion at 31 March 2018.]
The little openness that exists in government IT depends to an extent on EC open tendering regulations. Open competition for contracts is also largely the result of EC regulations.
These regulations ensure contracts and winners are published; and the EC investigates allegations of breaches of its rules.
Without these regulations, ministers and officials would have more freedom to award large contracts to the same companies – ones that may later recruit them.
Anyone who regularly reads National Audit Office reports knows that there are pockets of competence in central government but consider how IT over the last 30 years has cut costs for the private sector and compare that with the increasing costs of running central government.
There are impressive exceptions, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport being one.
A frightening thought?
EC regulations deter corruption among ministers and officialdom. Why would anyone be in a hurry to be rid of them?
UK central government administration is largely unaccountable and opaque at the moment, particularly when it comes to arm’s length bodies such as the Post Office. After Brexit, central government administration is destined to become less open and accountable, and thus more costly – a frightening thought for anyone who cares how their taxes are spent.
Thank you for this sobering – “This is Your Life – UK.”
Yes, the machinery of government, national and local, grinds on and over its taxpayers. As you may recall, I theorise that this is inevitable in mature systems, particularly when the populace doesn’t think they have to take a more active role in keeping their civil servants accountable.
And it is tragic because it is largely avoidable. Even allowing for a patchy education system, there are many competent people eager and willing to solve many of our problems. Tragically, they seem to be kept down via the tall poppy syndrome – to make life comfortable for the stumpier of the species.
On top of that, we seem to have a communal amnesia over our core principles – all we seem to judge everything by is “Money.” Even with a system that is supposed to be beneficial to our well-being – the NHS – it is viewed as a money pot by those who wish to label their products “for the NHS” but which turn out to be tools for transferring money from the NHS to mega-corporations. The latter will, of course, vacuum up personnel who are helpful to them – follow the money.
I had assumed that smaller organisational units, e.g. individual states in the USA, and countries within Europe, would prove more accountable to their citizens than the usual buck-passing, and hiding within the maze of larger over-arching hierarchies like Washington and Brussels. But again, whatever size or arrangement or our organisations, its integrity does depend on the engagement and capabilities of its citizens.
However, the last three years, and the current state of politics, has demonstrated to the world that we are – to put it politely – very limited in our capabilities. We don’t seem to appreciate that there is a rapidly developing and dynamic world out there plus the powerful nations while we still chortle within closed bubbles of complacency and limited understanding.
I have a dread that, whether inside the EU or outside, now the world has seen us performing, we are going to largely survive as a quaint, tourist attraction while the more sophisticated in the world develop appropriate business and dealing skills
Thanks, Tony, for all of your info. and insights – much appreciated.
Thank you Zara. Yes it’s a pity most people have little interest in how their money is spent and still less in holding civil servants accountable. Central government is unnecessarily expensive because we allow it to be. Not all bad news, though. I’ll post a positive piece soon on NHS IT.
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“Is Britain capable of managing its own affairs after Brexit?”
We have been members of the EEC and then the EU for 46½ years since 1 January 1973 and, from what you say, we have been pretty consistently incompetent.
Leaving might help.
Or would you first like to try direct rule from the Berlaymont?
Thank you David for the comment. I suspect the pervasive lack of openness and accountability in central govt go a long way to explaining the high costs and poor levels of service in some parts. That’s not the EC’s fault. Indeed the EC imposes a degree of openness and accountability but I realise there are millions of people in the UK who will not want to hear a positive word about the EC/EU.
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