If anyone was in doubt about the incompetence of government, Dominic Cummings’ committee hearing made it crystal clear. While Cummings didn’t outline the root causes of the problems, since his interrogators didn’t ask about them, the pandemic has undoubtedly exposed fundamental flaws within our political system – and there are lessons to be learned.
In our system, in order to become an MP, the most important process to get through is internal party selection. Once over this hurdle, you’ve got a good chance of being elected, considering we currently have over 410 safe sets with winning margins of over 20 per cent.
A party selection process typically involves extensive interviews, being parachuted into un-winnable seats and campaigning in those seats for months at your own personal expense. When the possibility of a safe seat is given, you then have to make it through the short list and a panel of the party’s local branch selection committee. Then, finally, the local membership votes on whether you will be their candidate.
There are many reasons why some of our representatives in parliament may not be as competent as we’d expect. First, the pay of an MP is £81,932, and that of a minister is only about £113,000. These salaries may appear generous, but when compared to FTSE 250 CEO’s remuneration at £1.57m they appear relatively low. Many potential candidates may not wish to take such a pay cut to become a low ranking minister, expected to follow the orders of their Secretary of State, and parrot the party line. For this reason, the pool of competence may already be reduced.
Further, when it comes to candidate selection, loyalty and name recognition – not competence – are often the main factors for success.
When new MPs then get into Westminster and are eventually made ministers further problems emerge. The average length of a Secretary of State’s tenure is just two years. Is this really an adequate amount of time to fully grasp the details of an entire government department? And even if they do master their brief in this amount of time, it is unlikely that the department will reap the rewards before they’re onto their next government role. It’s worth noting in comparison that a CEO’s average tenure is over five years.
One of the results of having such inexperience at most levels of Government is that the Civil Service effectively takes over the running of departments.
The Civil Service, though, is by no means immune to the aforementioned problems, or indeed a plethora of others. One only needs to watch Yes, Minister for that to be made clear. One particular problem, though, warrants discussion: Injelititis.
Injelititis is the phenomena of an individual who is both incompetent and jealous and seeks to push out, or not promote, anyone with higher ability who threatens their position. The idea is that as part of human nature to wish to be at the top of a hierarchy, and as such those in charge of hiring will consciously or unconsciously be under the psychological pressure not to adopt those who could possibly take their job because they’re more competent. A second rate inferior is therefore appointed, who will then appoint a third rate subordinate to him and the process continues as incompetence flows down the organisational pyramid.
Cecil Northcote Parkinson, the senior post-war civil servant and political scientist who developed the aforementioned theory, was also no doubt onto something with Parkinson’s Law, the tendency for any individual in management when feeling overworked to appoint two junior subordinates to share his workload. The theory follows that if a manager employs just one junior, they would become equals, since he or she would know everything his boss did. And why would the manager wish to create competition for his own job? By splitting his task between two juniors neither gets round to managing the whole brief and neither therefore threatens his position.
Could it be that we see this theory come to life in the Civil Service? It may go some way to explaining why there seems to be a terrible over-manning which leads to knowledge being split between too many individuals. It appears as if no one has a full grasp on the situation, and in departments with thousands of people it’s hard to find the expert in any one area.
In the private sector, this kind of incompetence would lead to inexorable cost increases. Competition puts paid to inefficiency and endemic failure by forcing managers to promote competence, for the alternative is bankruptcy.
The fundamental issue with all state services is there is no proper competition. If an incompetent administrator raises costs and delivers services badly, no one replaces them, they simply remain. The same is true of politicians. We rely on elections to get rid of incompetent politicians, but safe seats, party politics, lack of voter knowledge of the issues and a variety of other factors make that impossible. The constant pressure of private competition driving competence is entirely absent from the State. That is the root of the problems Cummings highlighted.