The Great Offices of State on TV and in reality

Posted by Richard D North under Post-Bureaucratic world / The Political Class on 1 March 2010

Michael Cockerell’s BBC  TV shows on the three Great Offices of State are a sad and not very useful commentary on the state of national debate. Here’s a proposal.

The Homes Office is a dysfunctional self-obsessed bunker. The Foreign Office is full of clever managers of decline. The Treasury is a tight-fisted bastion of Keynesianism. That was roughtly the message a casual viewer would have gleaned from the latest series from Mr Cockerell.

The shows did reveal rather more than that, but much of the richer picture consisted in big guns of the recent past banging away at whichever of their fellows they had fallen out with.

A lot of this was dangerously like Yes, Minister, in being a chronic mis-reading of the problem facing the Civil Service.  

What we didn’t get was any proper discussion of what reforms might be needed in the way Whitehall works and how it might relate to government and the rest of Westminster.

I am clarifying my own view that what we need is strong, small, elitist Whitehall which is charged with wider and more public work than we have known.

I think Whitehall should move beyond serving the Crown by serving ministers (and hiding behind their skirts). Instead, they should become more complex. They should continue their old work of advising ministers, but they should also have divisons which formally develop alternative policy options at the behest of Parliament. They should do less of the actual work of running government.

In effect, then, the Civil Service should stay independent, but work continuously for all sorts of potential governments and none, as well as serving the present government especially in helping to formulate policy and ensuring delivery.

The point here, in part, is to open up the Civil Service to far more scrutiny. The move would make it harder for departments to become bastions of particular orthodoxies.

Just as importantly, the political parties would be put under much closer scrutiny as they develop policy. Their work would be second-guessed by official policy professionals, especially for its workability.

This would recognise that politicians are – rightly - populists who seek general directions and tone in policy but who need both help and discipline as they make specific proposals.

The Home Office was for years thought to hate punishing criminals; the Foreign Office loved Arabs and Europe; the Treasury loved Keyenes. These cliches were never quite true, but that they built up at all was a sign that Whitehall was either misunderstood or was prone to monomania and perhaps a bit of both. Not good. 

I was irritated by the Cockerell shows because they seemed to me lazy (or possibly, chronically underfunded). They trotted out old material and added some more recent rather gossipy stuff.

We needed far more.

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