Gaming the technocrats

Last week the special advisors network in Westminster (all of the UK governing politicians personal spin-doctors) were having a collective belly-laugh at the expense of the non-partisan permanent bureaucrats who are responsible for the everyday smooth running of UK major offices of state. The extent to how efficiently they run them and execute their political masters orders – not least the spending of large amounts of taxpayer bucks – is a question a powerful independent parliamentary committee called the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is constantly trying to get to the bottom of. Unfortunately the head of the Ministry of Defence, Ursula Brennan, failed to provide any convincing answers last week triggering much deeper questions in the UK about the competency of permanent officials (something the political special advisers have been making jokes about since day one of the new UK coalition government: “…the engine of a lawn mower, and the breaks of a rolls royce”)

The entertainingly aggressive chair and deputy chair of the committee (Margaret Hodge and Richard Bacon) seem determined to make the permanent officials more publicly accountable for the spending of their departments. While this is somewhat of a challenge for traditionally anonymous public officials in the Westminster government model, it is ultimately a good thing for both the state and society. Firstly greater transparency of state spending should lead to more efficient use of public funds; through both a greater incentive to prove efficient practices as well as greater opportunities for outsiders to point out inefficiencies to address. Secondly, society should have greater faith in state institutions spending its tax money if it knows how the money is being spent.

Sadly though the PAC seems to be banging its head against oak-panelled committee room walls at the moment in an effort to show incompetence is rife amongst Westminster bureaucrats. It is not. Recently, as an advisor in the thick of it at Westminster, I met many capable public servants whose talents and drive were more often than not frustrated by a system which intrinsically defaults to inertia. So if the PAC really wants to enhance scrutiny it needs to find a smarter mechanism that both incentivises more open information and rewards those who give it competent and credible answers. A mechanism that enables parliamentarians to get even, rather than get mad, so to speak

A former head of the UK civil service often presented his own ‘capability reviews’ to the British Prime Minister as evidence that the permanent bureaucracy were driving their own “improvements”. From what I could understand, relative to how a good business would review itself, these were all about ticking organisational process boxes rather than focusing on the achievement of outcomes. Still, there did seem to be something in the relative rankings; especially how the heads of department defensively reacted when you pointed out their ‘league placing’ compared to another department. Permanent officials, it seems, are highly competitive animals when judged against each other. While of course in public they can all agree on the wine list, in truth nobody would want to be left drinking the merlot!

So, could this point to some innovation for Hodge and Bacon to exploit in their quest to enhance transparency and improve bureaucratic efficiency? Rather than simply grandstanding their frustration with permanent officials (which is certainly not good for your health or long term career prospects in the old fashioned Westminster model!) the PAC could more systematically rank the performance given by each permanent official it cross examines, and keep an updated league table on its website. One doesn’t have to think too hard about the different criteria each committee member could score the permanent accounting officers (who are responsible for value for money in their department) on:

  • Provided clear spending data to the auditors / committee in advance (max 5 points)
  • Answers committee questions clearly and fully (max 5 points)
  • Committee has confidence official is on top of department expenditure (max 5 points)
  • Able to to present evidence to show spending is maximising value-for-money, within the ministerial decisions taken (max 10 points)
  • Demonstrates a credible understanding of future threats and challenges to current spending projections (max 5 points)

So the idea is an ‘accounting officers premier league’. For sure it wouldn’t get much notice beyond the Westminster bubble, but the PAC could be sure that when the heads of department sit round the table together each wednesday morning they will all know who is at the top and who is at the bottom! Could this incentivise senior bureaucrats to up their game in front of Hodge and Bacon, resulting in a more transparent state having to explain more competently the spending taken on behalf of society? You betcha! Will Hodge and Bacon have the courage to try such an innovation when the new parliamentary term starts next week? Well, they are a breath of fresh air providing a much needed kick to the system, but doubt you will see this sort of innovation anytime soon.

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