Oliver Letwin believes that public servants need more “fear and discipline” to achieve excellence in delivery of services.
As anybody who has been involved in the public sector (or for that matter the private sector) knows, it’s nonsense. Excellence involves commitment and collaborative management – you do not get that through fear. And it also, of course, needs proper resources. Fear, quite obviously, leads to corner-cutting, obsession with targets rather than service, the prioritising of process over innovation, back-minding, and ultimately to a culture of dishonestly. If Letwin had ever had any real management responsibility, he would know that. His comments may once have raised a dyspeptic snigger at All Souls’ high table, but display a real ignorance of the real world of delivering services. And the fact is, much as they may loathe public servants, Coalition Ministers have to govern through officials and are dependent on them.
Letwin’s comments about discipline may well bring a wry smile to some in Whitehall, where his apparently haphazard working methods were the stuff of much gossip among officials.
But, more seriously, there’s a pattern emerging here. Letwin’s comments show two salient features of Coalition government – bullying and the inability to manage what used to be called the machinery of Government. They’re out of the same stable as Cameron’s comments about public servants being the enemies of enterprise, as Eric Pickles’ comments about how to manage officials who present disagreeable information. Instead of government, they’re giving us prejudice. And the discipline of evidence-based policy making appears to have disappeared altogether.
The most interesting parallel is with old-fashioned inept British management – bullying, bluster, class prejudice and incompetence. The psychopathology of Coalition Ministers is strikingly similar to the mentality of 1970s managers, railing about the “right to manage” while their businesses collapsed about their ears.