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William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall

The Foreign Secretary has delivered a speech defending the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which is well worth a read for those of us interested in this administration’s attitude to government and for its direction of travel on public services. Beside what he has to say about UK foreign policy, the speech is remarkable for what it says about how government works. At a time when most ministers (of this government and the last) go out of their way to denigrate their officials, William Hague’s speech provides a fine counter example.

The Foreign Secretary praises junior officials, talks about the need for good policy and management skills, and mounts an eloquent defence of the need for institutions themselves. He says:

 “Strong institutions are necessary in civil society, to encourage participation and keep in check an overmighty State; they are necessary to our judiciary and Parliament so that the law is upheld and the making of it respected; but they are also necessary within the State, a point tragically overlooked by those Prime Ministers who have created and abolished departments on a fancy or a whim, destroying as they did so the pride and continuity of thousands of public servants while rendering government incomprehensible to the average citizen. The whole country should know what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is and what it does, and all those interested in foreign policy at home or abroad should see it as a centre of excellence with which they aspire to be associated. This can only be achieved if it is in itself a strong institution, able to attract and retain exceptional people from a wide range of backgrounds and to generate powerful ideas.”

This is true, but it is not something that has been obvious in recent political discourse. The Foreign Secretary is right to pinpoint the fad for “machinery of government” changes that tend to characterise the annual Cabinet re-shuffle. While reform of government departments is perfectly legitimate in order to focus governmental resources on priority areas, the reality of these reorganisations have often been skin deep; a re-branding exercise required by factional, horse trading rather than any genuine re-direction of governmental attention.

But William Hague’s speech also brings into the focus this government’s aspiration to deliver a post-bureaucratic state. The theory behind which is perhaps most concisely captured by David Cameron himself:

“We’re living in an age where technology can put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost every­one. So the argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and make decisions on our behalf – simply falls down. In its place rises up a vision of real people power. This is what we mean by the Post-Bureaucratic Age. The in formation revolution meets the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action.”

What is striking about the post-bureaucratic state language is how complete and all-encompassing it is. It does not suggest an evolution in which government machinery is made incrementally more transparent using information technology, but recognising that central expertise would always be necessary. It suggests instead, that dispersed “people power” can and should entirely replace the power of official structures of expertise; of bureaucracies.

Oliver Letwin, for example, talks about the “post-bureaucratic age” in terms of the “point we’ve reached in our and the world’s history.” And he compares present social changes to the very beginnings of modernism and the invention of the printing press. “We don’t think that the coming of the internet age and the associated sociocultural changes are just something that’s happened that’s sort of interesting in the way in which the invention of some new machine tool or whatever might be interesting. We think it’s a profound a shift as the invention of printing with as much effect on the way in which cultural and social life is conducted as that had.”

The Conservatives’ post-bureaucratic age was an ambitious attempt to hook a programme for a new government to deeper social changes that would undoubtedly affect the administration’s work. Why, however, the government let itself claim that our age had moved beyond the need for organised expertise was surely a misjudgement.  It is therefore interesting, and the first that I have noticed, that a senior member of the government is prepared to stand up for traditional institutions, for governance and significantly to defend the necessary role of official expertise in our democracy.

Photo: FCO on Flickr

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