Top civil servant brands civil service as "utterly antiquated"

June 16, 2008 3:48 PM

A very interesting piece in yesterday's Observer reported on a damning indictment of the civil service, from one of their own.


Firstly, the credentials of the critic: the Observer report states that Zenna Atkins, 42, was holder of the Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2000, appointed to the navy audit committee in 2005 and to the Ofsted board in 2006 by former Education Secretary Alan Johnson. She is currently director of the Royal Navy Fleet Executive Board, chair of its audit committee and also chair of Ofsted. She also works in the private sector. So no shortage of expertise or experience there.


Next, the indictment, as reported by the Observer:

'I could say without doubt that significant parts of the civil service are broken,' she told The Observer. 'The machinery of government is not even in the 20th century, never mind the 21st century'....


She argued that while some parts of the civil service were 'modern and slick', many others were operating like a 'horse-drawn buggy' while the rest of society had moved on to the motor car.


'I have never met such bright people who really care about what they are doing but they are working in a machine with a set of customs, cultures, values and practices that are utterly antiquated. A lot of the time the process is more important than the outcome.'


Atkins, 42, who also works in the private sector, described how an email sent by a minister or chair could be passed between '58 people', all desperate to protect their superior from embarrassment. She gave the example of a letter being sent to the director-general of schools suggesting that he meet informally with the Olympic gold medal hurdler David Hemery to find out about the former athlete's 'phenomenal' work with young people.


'It gets into the inbox of the director-general of schools and the person who reads the emails sends it to the Olympics link in the department for children, schools and families, and they send it to the London Olympic organising committee,' she said. 'The whole thing has taken weeks of waste and not one of the people batting it between them earns less than £40,000 a year.' The civil service, she added was 'overpopulated with highly intelligent people who can't do simple, menial tasks, simply or menially'. It was also full of fiercely risk-averse people 'because no civil servant ever got fired for doing nothing. They get fired for doing something.'

She also branded the Ministry of Defence as one of the worst offenders. Speaking about the language of the civil service, she said:

'Nowhere is worse than the Ministry of Defence. It is impenetrable. You will read a memo and it will appear to be gibberish, incomprehensible. People are not known by job titles; they are known by a set of letters.'

This is an extremely interesting story, and gives us many answers as to why the civil service has performed so poorly, and why the huge amount of extra spending in recent years has failed to improve matters.

A very interesting piece in yesterday's Observer reported on a damning indictment of the civil service, from one of their own.


Firstly, the credentials of the critic: the Observer report states that Zenna Atkins, 42, was holder of the Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2000, appointed to the navy audit committee in 2005 and to the Ofsted board in 2006 by former Education Secretary Alan Johnson. She is currently director of the Royal Navy Fleet Executive Board, chair of its audit committee and also chair of Ofsted. She also works in the private sector. So no shortage of expertise or experience there.


Next, the indictment, as reported by the Observer:

'I could say without doubt that significant parts of the civil service are broken,' she told The Observer. 'The machinery of government is not even in the 20th century, never mind the 21st century'....


She argued that while some parts of the civil service were 'modern and slick', many others were operating like a 'horse-drawn buggy' while the rest of society had moved on to the motor car.


'I have never met such bright people who really care about what they are doing but they are working in a machine with a set of customs, cultures, values and practices that are utterly antiquated. A lot of the time the process is more important than the outcome.'


Atkins, 42, who also works in the private sector, described how an email sent by a minister or chair could be passed between '58 people', all desperate to protect their superior from embarrassment. She gave the example of a letter being sent to the director-general of schools suggesting that he meet informally with the Olympic gold medal hurdler David Hemery to find out about the former athlete's 'phenomenal' work with young people.


'It gets into the inbox of the director-general of schools and the person who reads the emails sends it to the Olympics link in the department for children, schools and families, and they send it to the London Olympic organising committee,' she said. 'The whole thing has taken weeks of waste and not one of the people batting it between them earns less than £40,000 a year.' The civil service, she added was 'overpopulated with highly intelligent people who can't do simple, menial tasks, simply or menially'. It was also full of fiercely risk-averse people 'because no civil servant ever got fired for doing nothing. They get fired for doing something.'

She also branded the Ministry of Defence as one of the worst offenders. Speaking about the language of the civil service, she said:

'Nowhere is worse than the Ministry of Defence. It is impenetrable. You will read a memo and it will appear to be gibberish, incomprehensible. People are not known by job titles; they are known by a set of letters.'

This is an extremely interesting story, and gives us many answers as to why the civil service has performed so poorly, and why the huge amount of extra spending in recent years has failed to improve matters.

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