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"no way of knowing what was going wrong"

posted 20 Oct 2013, 02:26 by Peter Webb   [ updated 21 Oct 2013, 06:57 ]
It is reported that a surprising but deeply significant admission has been made by  top civil servant Robert Devereux as he prepares to fall on his sword. As Permanent Secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions he has resided over the Universal Credit "fiasco" along with his minister Ian Duncan Smith. That single sentence probably lies at the heart of  all the other similar departmental fiascos in recent times. 

 Who will mend UK governance ? We hear that Francis Maude the Civil Service Minister is fighting  the mandarinate which is populated by undoubtedly splendid people with a proud tradition. But they are now the wrong people professionally. Mr Devereux shows his unsuitability  by appearing not to know how to be aware. 

But it is also clear from the transcript of his tense interview by the PAC (yet to report)  on 11th September that the government's ability to handle very big projects. with IT still evolving, is much affected by its diverse and operationally  antiquated structure. There is also mention  of incentive in maintaining complexity over simplicity, not to mention comprehension and terminology gaps between eg accountable officers and politicians.

There is over-emphasis on the political: pushing the limits of the possible. My 5 year-old grandson is very good at that but he has not yet learnt the art of management: the delegation of responsibility while retaining control.

Only enlightened and suitably experienced leadership from the very top can direct necessary change to the way Westminster and Whitehall function properly together. The archaically named Treasury being the weakest link surely the First Lord of the Treasury is the person who must lead refurbishment of the government managerial infrastructure, decision-making, operational performance and accountability process. David Cameron currently has that responsibility as First Lord.