The Covid Civil Servant

18 August 2020. Updated 20 August 2020.
The man in Whitehall does not know best

Having spent nearly half my career working as a civil servant delivering complex projects, on time and within budget, it is saddening to see the debacle that the Civil Service is making of what is now a crisis. There are various causes of the management failure, a number of which I will briefly expand on below.

Lack of accountability and responsibility
This has been a feature of the Civil Service for many years. The Senior Civil Service (SCS) are responsible for managing development of policy and its delivery. Whilst it is convenient for politicians to blame Ministers for failings, the real issues and causes of failure generally occur within the various teams. In a number of areas the problem is further complicated by the cross-departmental nature of much of the policy setting and delivery – further allowing Ministers and their SCS to spread the blame. This is exacerbated by the relationships between Ministerial Departments and the plethora of arms-length bodies (ALBs), who notionally report to a Minister, but in practice operate with a significant degree of autonomy within the policy framework set by the sponsoring department. If we add to that the regular changes to the machinery of Government, i.e. creation, merger and disestablishment of Ministries, ALBs, etc., there is plenty of potential for things to fall through the cracks – intentionally or otherwise.

Basic knowledge and competence
It is fashionable for civil servants to claim that you do not need specialist knowledge to solve a complex problem – so for example the Head of Ofqual does not have a background in education management but instead was until 2016 the head of Crown Commercial Service (CCS).

The lack of accountability and responsibility
This issue persists in many policy setting areas and is compounded by the policy developers’ ignorance of how their sector or specialism actually operates. For example, when the PPE shortage hit, the NHS providers and supply chain seemed unaware that many of these supplies were sourced from China, i.e. there was minimal existing indigenous manufacturing of PPE, again hardly a surprise given the purchasing at lowest cost – a common theme in public procurement.

Lack of numeracy and scientific understanding
There are few among our political elite and the supporting SCS who have STEM degrees and the consequence of this narrow pool is a failure to understand basic concepts, e.g. they believe “the science is settled” when it comes to climate change, and that they’re “following the science” regarding COVID-19. What they fail to appreciate is that science is rarely settled. By its nature, it is about investigating and challenging assumptions, collecting and evaluating evidence to test hypotheses, and seeking to avoid bias and misrepresentation of results. The current narrative regarding testing and ‘cases’ is a classic example of this lack of numeracy and statistical knowledge. If you test more you are likely to find more occurrences and they may be actual positives or false positives.

Poor data/information management
The Government goes on at length about data, e.g. open data, data as the new oil, data dashboards, sharing CSV and JSON files of the published data, etc. But look below the surface and what you find is tantamount to fraud, aided and abetted by the mainstream media. The daily death totals were not for deaths that occurred the previous day as oft reported, but were reported the previous day, i.e. deaths that had not previously been reported, and the period covered by these totals could extend back up to 60 days. The misleading figures reported by PHE, which sanctioned the misleading calculation method exposed by Prof Carl Heneghan, is another example of poor information management. In both cases, the numbers publicised are official information (statistics) and it appears that the relevant individuals in the SCS have been either negligent or naive.

Project delivery
Successful project delivery is typically based on a clearly articulated goal and an understanding of the metrics that will be used to assess achievement of the goal. Regarding an issue like COVID-19, successful project interventions require clear policy objectives, something we have not seen throughout, and a risk-based appraisal of the project delivery plan. One would expect a project to consider alternative implementations, weighing up costs, benefits and risks with a view to seeking optimal delivery. This optional appraisal should allow a project sponsor to assess the project business or funding case with a view to achieving best value for money. So if we look at the Nightingale Hospitals – great delivery, but at what cost and benefit? Given that the one at Excel has not been used, was the project really necessary and did it represent good value for money?

The above factors demonstrate serious management failings in the UK response to COVID-19. While it is easy to blame Ministers, and they have been shown in a poor light, it is their officers (the SCS) that have singularly failed the public. It is this largely anonymous body of well paid public servants that develop the policy options, advise on outcomes and manage delivery. If this is what “taking back control” looks like, then we are in for a few really difficult years.

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