‘YOU must be mad!’ Those were the words of welcome from a very senior civil servant when I reported for duty on my first day two years ago as a Minister of State in Gordon Brown’s new Government Of All The Talents – or GOATS as it became known.
‘I know you intend to do things differently round here,’ he said, ‘But just remember you’ll be gone in a couple of years while we all have careers to build and no one here is going to harm his or her career for the sake of this new idea.’ Some welcome! But, as things swiftly revealed, so very true.
With the average length of service in ministerial jobs being 18 months, is it any wonder that our Civil Service runs the country with ‘here today and gone tomorrow Ministers’ – merely ambitious, confused, frustrated, worried and overworked spectators at the feast?
The crucial position of Secretary of State for Defence is now filled by its third incumbent in just two years, and we are so keen to make a difference in the national interest in Brussels that we are on our 11th different Europe Minister in 12 years.
With the call from so many different quarters for radical change, we must use the impetus created by the MPs’ expenses scandal to deliver a system of governing fit for purpose in a highly competitive, technically advanced, consumer-driven, delivery-focused 21st Century world.
Jacqui Smith, until recently Home Secretary, last week had the courage to speak out on the point. So did Estelle Morris when she stepped down as Education Secretary under Tony Blair six years ago. By her own admission, Ms Smith had never run a major organisation. Actually, as a former teacher from Redditch, she’d never run anything at all.
With no training or experience, she had taken up the reins of the third great Office of State and found herself in a system that is, to use her own words, ‘frankly, pretty dysfunctional in the way it works’.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has done some things badly and some well. One thing he did recognise was that the current system of delivery of services did not work and he introduced his GOATS.
BY introducing specialists such as Alan West from the Royal Navy into Security, Ara Darzi from the surgeon’s table into Health, Mark Malloch-Brown from the United Nations into the Foreign Office and me from the CBI into overseas trade and investment promotion, he was not only on to a good thing but he had the courage to face down his own party and other vested interests to do it.
The democratically elected Cabinet should formulate policy – but leave it to appointed specialists to implement. But by last week there was only one GOAT left standing – Lord West at Defence. The rest of us had gone.
We all had our own particular reasons, of course, but underlying them was that we were faced with the inability of the entire political system to change radically enough to accommodate a new way of working.
While I was head of the Confederation of British Industry, I found that very few Ministers understood business and that they would often cancel important overseas visits at the last minute, fearing that an absence from Westminster might damage their careers.
No other major developed economy demands so much of their Ministers. All have constituencies and re-election to worry about. All have to deal with the highly centralised control-freakery of No10, something started by the Thatcher administration and happily continued by her successors.
So many of the Ministers I came into contact with saw the job mainly as a stepping stone to ‘greater things’ in their political career advancement.
‘Greater things’ meant moving on (and hopefully upwards) after a short while to another position for which they would be similarly unqualified in an increasingly specialised world.
As a GOAT, I found there was a begrudging recognition in Whitehall and Westminster that we were personal appointments of the Prime Minister and that delivery was what we were all about. That was the theory. In practice, the system just went blithely on its own sweet Dickensian way.
People are kind enough to say I did the ‘business end’ of the job quite well. I made 45 separate overseas visits in 15 months promoting our nation around the world as no Trade Minister had done before.
But the system still expected everything else that a Minister currently is expected to do, to be done on top of that.
My Red Box was full every night, often with documents to sign that I had never seen before. I was expected to take responsibility for matters in which I had had absolutely no involvement. I often refused. Of course, this caused no end of problems. I know many junior Ministers, in hope of preferment and advancement up the ministerial greasy pole, would have just crossed their fingers and signed. But that’s the difference between an ambitious young politician and a specialist, experienced in other ways of life with no political career before or after him.
I was given the Energy Bill to steer through the Lords with its interminable and time- consuming committee work – so essential for the proper workings of Government but surely not the best use of a specialist’s talents.
I had absolutely no control over the actions of civil servants but was expected to take total, personal responsibility for them in the full glare of publicity.
I know that my fellow GOATS had similar experiences, doing the job for which they were recruited extremely well but every day coming up against a system that had not adapted to meet the vision of the Prime Minister and the challenge of a changing world.
It cannot go on. We have to take a leaf out of America’s book – or France’s for that matter. Let us have senior Ministers who are skilled in the field in which they are asked to operate. Let us have fewer of them. India, with a billion people, has recently elected just 500 MPs to serve them. We have 675 to serve just 60million.
We already have personality politics. The electorate feel they elect the Prime Minister themselves, even though they don’t. So we should give serious thought to borrowing elements of America’s Presidential system.
Parliament should enforce the will of the people and should hold the executive to account. MPs should less slavishly follow the party whip and be more accountable to their constituents. Our democratically elected PM would appoint Ministers to deliver democratically formulated policy. But they could come from all walks of life and be held accountable with democratically-elected and strengthened select committees.
They would be people who give several years to serving their country. They would have no axe to grind, no political career to worry about and not give a damn about who took the credit for what was achieved.
The country badly needs change. We must seize this once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity to bring our antiquated system into the 21st Century.
Jacqui Smith is a good woman, trying to change the world for the better as she sees it. But expecting her to deliver in the post of Home Secretary without a scintilla of experience or training was not only unfair on her but damaging to us all.
Health, education, business, transport, defence and security are too important to be left any longer to enthusiastic amateurs and their honest and hard-working but risk-averse civil servants.
Our children are going to pick up a very expensive bill for our generation’s actions. At least let us leave them with the tools to do the job.