What can be done

Leo Pliatzky

  • Government and the Governed by Douglas Wass
    Routledge, 120 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0312 8

The 1983-84 series of Reith Lectures was given by Sir Douglas Wass, who retired from the Civil Service in March 1983. He had served in the Treasury since 1946, and had been Permanent Secretary to the Treasury since 1974. The task which he set himself in the lectures was to examine the efficiency and responsiveness of central government in Britain. Knowing that it can be quite hard to find anything weighty enough to put into a single memorial lecture, my first reaction was to wonder whether there are enough subjects of general interest, and a sufficient supply of people with something new and important to say about them, to warrant a whole series of broadcast lectures every year. BBC Television has, each year, a single Dimbleby Lecture. It was one of these which Roy Jenkins used to put forward the ideas which led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party and the SDP-Liberal Alliance. One cannot imagine his lecture being spread over six broadcasts. The effect of doing so would have been to reduce, not enhance, the impact. However, the Reith Lectures have certainly acquired a following, and in a fair number of cases the book of the broadcasts has had a substantial sale. Douglas Wass sustained an audience estimated at 250,000 for each broadcast on Radio 4 and 150,000 for each repeat on Radio 3, with an unknown number of further listeners on the Overseas Service. His reasoned approach and fluent, non-academic prose went down well.

Although modest by comparison with the number of viewers who watch a popular television programme, by any other standards the size of audience achieved by the Reith Lectures is remarkable. It is of course commonplace to remark on the enormous impact and influence of broadcasting, especially television, which has changed social habits – keeping the grown-ups at home in the evenings in front of their sets and driving the young out to the cinema and the pubs – and has revolutionised electioneering and other forms of marketing. It is equally a matter of common observation that sound radio retains a role, even if it is only to provide something – anything – to listen to for car drivers, night workers, insomniacs, and teenagers with headphones permanently in place over their ears, shutting out the real world. One might not have thought that there would be such a large audience for a serious treatment of a serious subject.

This is the more remarkable when you consider the limitations which the lecturer imposed on the scope of his chosen subject. In large part the exclusions were inevitable, given that he had so recently held a position of confidence in the government service. He does not, and could not in the circumstances, discuss the content of government policy. He excludes also the relationship between central and local government – necessarily, since that, too, has become a contentious issue of current government policy. The electoral system is another excluded topic, and this seems to me a more serious limitation on the treatment of the themes with which the lectures are concerned. For it is made clear that the lectures are an exploration of possible checks and balances (presumably on the power of the Executive) such as are built into the American Constitution. (We can only speculate how far this view of the need for checks and balances is a reaction to the style of government which we have had for the last five years; I do not recall it as one of the author’s earlier preoccupations, but then civil servants do not talk politics much among themselves.) And any discussion of this issue is incomplete if you leave out the role of the parties and the electoral system.

Douglas Wass makes the point that his choice of subject reflects his own personal experience in government. ‘A different experience would yield a different perspective.’ This is so true of all of us. Douglas’s career has been primarily in the field of macro-economic policy. Thus, when he speaks of efficiency, he is not so much concerned with, so to speak, the line-management aspects of efficiency as with the effectiveness of the decision-making processes in government, and especially with collective policy-making in Cabinet. For my part, I agree that, while managerial efficiency in the public services is of enormous importance, policy-making is cardinal. As I have written elsewhere, government at its highest levels is about the management of dilemmas, which is even more difficult than the management of resources. Nevertheless it would have been interesting to hear a view on what contribution the Treasury’s much-publicised Financial Management Initiative is actually making to efficiency: but perhaps that, too, was on the index of self-prohibited topics.

It is harder to guess at the reasons for leaving out Europe, a word which does not appear even once in the lectures. I suppose that, apart from the escalating problem of the Community budget, the EEC has not loomed large in the Treasury’s macro-economic preoccupations, especially as we have kept out of the European Monetary System, or at any rate out of those elements of the EMS which matter for practical purposes. Yet our accession to the Treaty of Rome was in many ways a constitutional revolution; and it is the more astonishing that we have been able to make this leap when the procedures of the House of Commons remain so obstinately archaic, the House of Lords in its present form is an anachronism (though it nevertheless does useful work), the electoral system remains unreformed, and the trade unions refuse to adapt. The effects of this revolution have been patchy. Most are not visible in our everyday lives. There has, however, been a massive reorientation of our overseas trade, and the conduct of our trade relations with the rest of the world is in the hands of EEC officials. The pattern of our agriculture has been distorted, and the limitations now proposed on the Common Agricultural Policy will not put that right. Public companies have the letters ‘plc’ after their names, instead of ‘Ltd’ – a small visible token of the mass of company law that stems from Brussels, though re-enacted in our Parliament. Nationals of Community countries can work here, though Americans and visitors from Commonwealth countries generally cannot, and of course, like the television characters in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, we are free to work in Community countries. And if it is freedom of information you are after, you will find it in Brussels, where everything leaks like mad.

However, to have been drawn any distance into the European dimension would no doubt have been a distraction from the main sequence of thought in the lectures. In the first lecture, under the title ‘United Thoughts and Counsels’, Wass discusses the situation in which Cabinet has to take collective decisions on the basis of ex parte statements from the departmental minister concerned, while other ministers are without advice or adequate information on the subject. He discusses this problem with particular reference to the management of the economy and the budget, and to the choice of priorities in public expenditure. He sees these choices as governed by inertia and political muscle, and argues for an experiment in zero-based budgeting and for a restoration of the system of programme analysis and review – PAR for short. This lecture ends with a plea for pragmatism, in the sense of a willingness to re-evaluate policies and admit error. The second lecture, which has the title ‘Cabinet: Directorate or Directory’, argues against a presidential style of government or any further strengthening of the prime minister’s position in relation to other ministers, and against the creation of a prime minister’s department. Still looking for ways of helping Cabinet as a whole to function better collectively, this lecture discusses but rejects the small War Cabinet model or a system of supra-departmental overlords, but floats the idea of developing our system of Cabinet committees: the new feature of the system would be the creation of Cabinet review committees with oversight of particular fields such as social security or the nationalised industries or even financial and economic policy. The chapter ends with a more explicit proposal that something very like the Central Policy Review Staff should rise from the ashes of that body, which was created by Mr Heath to brief Cabinet and Cabinet committees, but which went into decline and was put out of its misery by Mrs Thatcher after the 1983 Election. Son of CPRS would have greater resources and an enhanced role, especially in the annual public expenditure survey; it would, for instance, sit in at all the bilaterals between the Treasury and spending ministers, and would produce its own reports.

Lecture number three, on ‘The Privileged Adviser’, is an exposition of the case for a non-political career Civil Service, in conjunction with politically-committed special advisers who are not part of the regular administrative hierarchy. I myself needed no persuading of the wrong-headedness of the campaign by John Hoskyns (who is not mentioned in the lecture) for politicisation of Civil Service appointments, and I think that others will also find the arguments convincing. The lecture describes the close working relationship that can exist between a minister and a permanent secretary. Although this has now and then caused problems when individual officials have seemed to have too much influence, ‘incompatibility between a permanent secretary and his minister has, in my experience,’ Douglas Wass writes, ‘been more troublesome. This problem can occur when a minister inherits his top adviser from his predecessor. The present conventions make it difficult for a minister to remove his permanent secretary ... In spite of these difficulties, I have no doubt that if incompatibility does arise, the minister should be able to remove his permanent secretary.’ This is a very significant statement, and one with which I agree. French governments appear able to handle these situations with less difficulty, partly because they have in their gift a wide range of public appointments to which they can move top officials without too much loss of face. Even President Mitterrand’s socialist government, coming to power after decades in the wilderness, and inheriting a bureaucracy much of which was identified with the previous regime, was able, as I understand it, to find room for advisers more to its taste by a reshuffle rather than a purge.

‘Critical Opposition – Part of the Polity’, which is lecture number four, discusses the advantages and limitations of the new Select Committees, and the pressing need to strengthen the staff resources available to the Opposition, while recognising the difficulties in the idea of a Department of the Opposition. Lecture number five, on ‘Opening up Government’, argues for more liberal rules on the disclosure of government information, but sees a commitment by government to the idea of an informed public as more important than a Freedom of Information Act; it criticises both manipulation of the media by government and the use by the media of leaked information. The final lecture, ‘Participation – the Sole Bond’, finds representative government (in which we hand the business of governing over to elected representatives) a seriously deficient model for democracy. Casting around for ways of giving the citizen more direct participation or involvement, it arrives at the idea of ‘a single, large permanent Royal Commission from which panels would be drawn to carry out specific studies. It would be the Commission itself, not the Government, which decided what issues to investigate.’ Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of this idea, I find the connection between Royal Commissions and participatory democracy rather obscure. Royal Commissions and such like promote, at best, consultation rather than participation. But if the underlying thought is that a consultative democracy is the nearest we can get to a participatory democracy, there is something in that.

Let me now go back to the passage in the first lecture which argues that decisions on public expenditure ‘are governed by two well-entrenched, if rather arbitrary principles. Number one: “as things have been, so broadly shall they remain”; and number two: “he who has the muscle gets the money.” ’ It is true that inertia and political muscle are factors in public expenditure priorities, but it is not true, as I see it, that they are the governing factors. It is not the case that things have remained as they have always been. If you compare what happened to the various expenditure programmes under the last Labour government and in Margaret Thatcher’s first term of office, there were some striking differences. Labour made a modest cut in the volume of defence spending: the Conservatives increased the defence budget by over 20 per cent in real (cost) terms. Labour increased overseas aid: the Conservatives cut it. Labour increased the housing programme: the Conservative Government cut it by more than half. (Even if you do not bring the sale of council houses into the figures, it was still an enormous cut.) This was the force of ideas at work – of political philosophies which had developed outside Westminster and Whitehall and had gained ascendancy in the parties. The two governments behaved differently because they had different beliefs and had been elected on different manifestos. Tony Benn appreciated correctly the importance of getting control of the manifesto. On the other hand, governments cannot always carry out their manifestos. The last two Labour governments were obliged by balance-of-payments crises to retrench after their initial spending sprees; Edward Heath’s government and Margaret Thatcher’s first government set out to cut total expenditure but ended by increasing it; social security has climbed relentlessly, partly for demographic reasons and now because of unemployment. This was the force of circumstance – an overriding element which Douglas Wass acknowledges in another context.

Nevertheless, however much we are governed by these two prime movers, the force of ideas and the force of circumstance, that is no reason for failing to improve the decision-making processes. And yet I do not believe that we can depoliticise value-judgments or hand them over to a panel of philosopher kings; or that we promote efficiency by setting up some other body within government – whether a review committee or a CPRS or a Prime Minister’s Department such as exists in Australia – to second-guess the lead department. The Treasury’s Green Paper on public expenditure and taxation over the next ten years seems to me a contribution to a more open and better-informed debate in this field, though it does not go as far as some would like. There also appears to be a new system of programme reviews, which has not been formally announced but to which Douglas Wass makes a brief reference: the most important examples are the current reviews of pensions and other aspects of social security and of the family doctor service. One advantage that these reviews have over the old PAR system is the direct involvement of ministers. Between them, the Green Paper and this series of reviews may lead to decisions, within the year ahead, on the future of the Welfare State, or a large part of it. If we do not like what we get, that will be either because we do not share the ideas of the decision-makers of the day or because we do not share their views on the limitations imposed by circumstance.

If we are to talk about checks and balances, it seems to me a major omission – but possibly this also was self-imposed out of a sense of the need for discretion – not to discuss the oscillation between political philosophies that we have experienced under our electoral system and the kind of check that was at one stage briefly provided by the Lib-Lab pact, or the question of checks on the potential disruption of the economy such as we have seen from the Yorkshire miners’ organisation: perhaps this second problem has to be overcome before the politics of balance can have another chance. As for participation, David Sheppard, in his recent Dimbleby Lecture, voiced very well the concern of men of good will at the non-participation of the young of the inner cities and the industrial wastelands in the life of comfortable Britain. The lecture has still to be given which will tell us how, in Britain as it is, we are to adapt to industrial change, preserve democracy and the rule of law, restore opportunities for work and avoid inflation at one and the same time. Almost at the end of his lectures Douglas Wass says that, if his suggestions prove to be inoperable, ‘one day we shall have to devise others. Above all, we must keep alive the sense of a need for change.’ I will go along with that.