This is a perceptive piece and well worth pondering on.
As I see it, the old administrative arm of the civil service is still in existence but swamped by a vast expansion of the executive branch and those who are mere functionaries. Government is doing too much and in the process has diluted the quality of its staff.
Of course this begs the question that if - as is generally perceived - the standard of educational attainment has fallen along with any sense of discipline, then government department staff - I will not call all of them civil servants - will inevitably reflect these lower standards.
The farmers in England were denied money owed to them because of administrative chaos. At the same time a video was released showing the very office staff responsible for this chaos in a naked drunken “orgy” leaping from filing cabinets. And this week’s ‘missing disks’ fiasco stemmed from a low grade operative who was allowed more latitude than he was capable of responding to.
Personally, and on a less serious note, I first began to worry when - about 15 years ago - the head of the Office of National Statistics was someone called “Les”. [not “Paterson” NO! Though he was antipodean! ) The statistics suffered and have not yet recovered.
Today the permanent head of the Civil Service is one Gus O’Donnell . There was something to be said for showing a degree of aloofness and dignity in high office.It's not been "a Rolls-Royce among institutions" for a long time
Why is the Civil Service a laughing stock?
By Philip Johnston
Was this the week that the wheels finally came off what was once considered a Rolls-Royce among institutions, the British Civil Service?
Once capable of running half the world with a tenth of its current manpower, it is now depicted as a rusting wreck, propped up on bricks, awaiting the scrapyard. Such an assessment might seem slightly harsh after the loss of a couple of CDs that may, or may not, have fallen into the hands of an international credit card cloning gang. But the great child benefit records fiasco has come to symbolise all that is rotten in Whitehall — confirmation, as though it were needed, that the political establishment no longer cuts the mustard. What has gone so badly wrong?
It is a question that is vexing those at the very top of the service. Over the past 18 months, there has been an exercise in Whitehall known as the ''capability reviews", which have so far put 17 departments through the mill to see if they are, in the damning phrase attached to the Home Office by John Reid, ''not fit for purpose". These words have been heard again over the past few days as the political world shook its collective head in incredulity at the scale of the debacle. They capture the dilemma of the modern Civil Service: what is its purpose and how is it meant to be fulfilled?
A year ago, Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, launched the capability review process with a frank assessment of where it stood today: ''We are at a critical period in our history," he said. ''The role of the state – or, more bluntly, what ministers and the public expect from us – is changing just as profoundly, and arguably even more rapidly, than it did at any time in the 20th century.
"We have to improve management at the top, through rigorous performance management and intervention where necessary. We must listen to what those who use public services are saying to us. We have to improve our own capability and skills. And we need to drive improvements in quality."
The question is: how? The unions complain that staff cuts are inimical to such fine words. Yet more people work in the Civil Service and its agencies than at almost any time in history, at around 520,000, though they are more foot-loose than they once were. Just one in six stays on until normal retirement age. Two thirds resign to pursue other careers, a possible sign that those who join are disappointed with what they find.
Is there a problem with the calibre of top management? The procedures that allow a junior employee to copy the nation's benefits records and then send them by unsecured mail into oblivion must be the responsibility of the people who run the show. Are they up to the task? And if not, why not? They are paid higher salaries than ever, especially in the highest posts, largely because, over the past 20 years or so, there has been an attempt to attract top managers from the private sector.
A permanent secretary or the head of an agency can now expect to earn well in excess of £200,000 and to enjoy those other perks that used to draw people to the Civil Service in the absence of good pay — an opportunity to make a contribution to public life, power to influence policy, and an index-linked pension. The one thing that has gone, as evinced by the peremptory departure this week of Paul Gray as head of HM Revenue and Customs, is security of tenure.
It is also said that the modern Civil Service is more open to political manipulation and ministerial brow-beating than it used to be. Certainly, there has in recent years been a distinct dislike of the rising power of the ministerial special advisers, before whom even the most senior mandarin must genuflect. An inquiry by the Commons public administration committee questioned whether the ''public service bargain" had broken down, under which officials trade political activity and high salaries for "relative anonymity, a trusted role at the heart of government and job security with generous pensions and honours".
In exchange, politicians give up the right to hire and fire in return for "a lifetime of loyal service from the best and brightest the top universities could produce, with the highest ability to work the state machine and offer better-informed and more politically acute advice than anyone else could provide".
There is no certainty in this bargain any more. Charles Clarke lost his job as Home Secretary for a failure to deport foreign prisoners about whom he could not have known; but Alistair Darling remains Chancellor this week, while the permanent secretary fell on his sword.
Politicians think too few officials lose their jobs for incompetence. But there must be many high-fliers who, watching events this week, will think a career in the City is a more lucrative option if the public sector has become a risky place to be. In any case, you can go to the City now and end up in Whitehall. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of management consultants doing jobs that were once the preserve of the civil servants. Why should an official apply himself assiduously when his job is being done by a consultant half his age on five times his salary two offices along the corridor?
The question that Sir Gus's capability reviews must answer is why so much policy-making and its delivery — from the Child Support Agency and tax credits, to farm payments and foreign prisoners — is so bad. Even successes tend to cost more than expected. Other initiatives wreck services that were working perfectly well. As an IPPR report put it recently: ''The mantra of 'what matters is what works' is undermined by the fact that the Civil Service often does not know what works."
Ministers, frustrated with perceived under-performance, interfere too much from the centre, with a constant stream of targets and indicators for schools and hospitals that actually get in the way of achieving the outcomes they want. No longer are parameters set and the public servants — the teachers or the doctors — allowed to get on with it. Too much policy is devised in secret, and invisible to those who might counsel caution, though this is changing with more pre-legislative scrutiny by MPs.
Furthermore, public expectations are much higher than they once were; and civil servants are expected to do far more than they ever used to. Who could imagine an earlier Civil Service being required to devise and implement a policy on fat people? The Environment Department has even been given a mission ''to improve the current and future quality of life within the Earth's natural capacity".
If they mess that up, we really are in trouble.