Saturday, May 18, 2013

In defence of penpushers: the cuts we never challenge

When politicians want to sound like they are going to cut without cutting, they almost always promise to protect ‘frontline services’. The implication is that, unlike schools or hospitals, ‘Whitehall waste’ can be cut with basically no inconvenience to anyone. A few paperclips here, a few pointless penpushers there – who’s going to notice the difference? After all, who knows what they do all day anyway?

This really bothers me. Because of course, what civil servants do all day is develop the policies and regulations that govern schools and hospitals, that keep corporations in check, that protect the environment, and so on and so forth. And the hidden consequence of these unglamorous and so largely un-noticed ‘backroom cuts’ is to accelerate the corporate capture of politics.

My day job gives me a ringside seat at this particular drama. I meet civil servants pretty regularly, and since the cuts began to bite they are in a pretty sorry state. They aren’t allowed to have business cards, so whenever I need an email address I have to pass them one of mine to scribble on the back of. When I started my job in 2010, they’d just been informed they could only serve tea and coffee in external meetings, which if nothing else made them almost embarrassingly pleased to see me. Now, they’re not allowed to serve tea and coffee at all, making them seem like the poor relation of the private sector (and, to be honest, even the charity sector). These things matter: they have a subtle but important influence on the dynamics of the relationship between officials and lobbyists.

Most importantly, officials are now so thinly stretched, and have been so disrupted and demoralised by the upheaval of departmental ‘restructurings’, that they’re in no position to resist corporate lobbying. Civil servants already have both hands tied behind their backs by the ludicrous policy of ‘one-in, one-out regulation’ (which, by the way, has now been amended to ‘one-in, two-out’ - I despair). The massive inequality of arms between them and the industries they are supposed to regulate means that the decks are, now more than ever, stacked in favour of the rich and powerful. 

The other day, I had a meeting with a couple of civil servants to discuss new quality standards for a particular product. Although the idea was at a very early stage, it rapidly became apparent that they’d already had sessions with industry representatives who’d told them that the key standard most consumer groups are calling for would be legally impossible. I was pretty sure that this was bullshit, and told them so, albeit possibly not using those exact words. In response, one of them looked uncertainly at the other and said – I kid you not – “Well, it sounded pretty convincing at the time…” 

They then admitted that they knew they ought to get some independent legal advice on this, but hadn’t been able to access departmental lawyers. Feeling a rising sense of doom, I ended up offering to get some advice from a retired lawyer who sometimes helps out my charity. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s a tip-top ideal scenario when the government is dependent on the mates of a tiny charity with a turnover of less than £500,000 a year to resist the demands of an industry whose executives get paid more than that just for getting up in the morning.

Another of the policy initiatives I’ve been working on – a car crash all by itself, which I may blog about properly another time – started life three years ago presided over by two longstanding and well-liked officials who knew the area inside out. At least one of them was far more business-friendly than I’d have liked, but they at least knew their stuff, and were respected by those working in the field. Since then, I’ve dealt with a string of about four different sets of civil servants, each seemingly more junior and more clueless than the last. And, surprise surprise, industry has got what it wanted: three years of consultations and deliberations have achieved a big fat nothing. 

As far as I can see, civil servants have basically been told to sit on their hands and not regulate, then denied access to the resources and specialist knowledge they need to defend the public interest, as opposed to the interests of whichever powerful lobby shouts at them the loudest. Thank God we’ve done away with all that Whitehall waste!

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