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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

Grant Shapps is out to make a name for himself and he knows that one of the easiest ways to do that is to tear up a few paper tigers.  Controversy and a bit of tough-guy knockabout where no one really gets hurt is, of course, classic Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy by Phillie Cssablanca http://www.flickr.com/photos/philliecasablanca/5669454111/ CC

politics. This is probably how best to understand the comments reported on the MJ’s localgov.co.uk site yesterday that the Housing Minister is calling on “all public bodies to cease funding SOLACE”.

My ex-colleagues in SOLACE will react to this kind of play with their usual dignity. They know there is nothing in it for them to take on a national politician. After all, Mr Shapps is simply exercising his right to make political capital at the expense of hard-working public servants. Mr Shapps is neither the first nor the worst offender.

However, before we let him off with the usual shake of the head, let’s just see what Mr Shapps’s objection is. He is quoted as saying “I fail to see the business case for the public funding a body that has acted as a broker for local authority chief executives helping to bump up their pay as they move from council to council.

There is an urgent need to rein in excessive chief exec pay packets and exercise some restraint, which is why I am calling on all public bodies to cease funding SOLACE.”

So, just a quick fact check ….

1. Do public bodies fund SOLACE? No, they do not. A number of local authorities and public bodies certainly pay SOLACE for services, but none give funding, in the sense that Shapps suggests. SOLACE. As is well known in local government circles, most of SOLACE’s income comes from commercial arrangements with private and voluntary sector bodies who want to tap into SOLACE’s policy expertise. SOLACE has been working with private and voluntary sector suppliers for years in a way which is strikingly in line with government policy indeed ….

2. Is SOLACE responsible for excessive chief executive pay? Hardly! This part of Mr Shapps comment will have raised a hearty laugh in the offices of SOLACE Towers. What Mr Shapps seems to mean here is that the activities in the recruitment market of SOLACE’s trading arm, SOLACE Enterprises, have been used (clandestinely, or conspiratorially, perhaps?!) to push up levels of senior pay.  I must say that for someone who worked there for many years, and indeed for anyone who knows anything about SOLACE Enterprises, this will be an amusing idea. SOLACE Enterprises is quite simply a small player in a highly competitive market for recruitment consultants dominated by the big private sector specialists such as Veredus, Gatenby Sanderson and Odgers. The suggestion that tiny SOLACE Enterprises has influenced this market does not stand a moment’s scrutiny.

Mr Shapps is, of course, entitled to his moment of August Punch and Judy publicity. In fact, I secretly welcome his comments because it allows me to to introduce my new tag of Punch and Judy localism, and its up-market cousin, ironic localism, a term that will undoubtedly recur in the future posts …..

Thanks to Phillie Casablanca for the picture under CC

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