Beyond Control

Does anyone really believe this stuff?

So the ex-head of HMRC who resigned just a fortnight ago over the data discs disaster, is still in Whitehall, working now at the Cabinet Office. And Paul Gray is still on his £200k pa salary.

Even better, he's now leading a project on "developing civil servant skills". The man who presided over such jaw-dropping sloppiness among his own staff that they routinely post everyone's bank details on Facebook, is now developing the same skills right across Whitehall.

It is inconceivable this would happen in the private sector: can anyone imagine Tesco sacking its Finance Director for losing all its Club Card customer data, and then getting him back to train staff?

And it's not even the first time we've seen this at HMRC. Paul Gray's predecessor, Sir David Varney, "resigned" abruptly in July 2006 (see this blog). We never did get to the bottom of that, but he too simply moved to another Whitehall job, advising on "transformational government" at the Treasury.

It's exactly the same right across Whitehall. Failure in a senior post is no bar to advancement.

There's the notorious case of Sir John Gieve (see many previous blogs, eg here and here), who "led" the Home Office into total dysfunction, got "moved" from there, only to pop up as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England- where he has since presided over the Northern Crock fiasco.

Taxpayers will also recall the case of Sir Nigel Crisp, ex CEO of the NHS, who... er, "retired" suddenly at the height of the NHS funding crisis in March 2006, and re-emerged one month later as Baron Crisp. He continues to rule over us from the red benches.

The NHS is notorious for re-employing senior managers who've only just been expensively paid off. For example, in October it was reported that:

"Derek Smith, the chief executive of Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust is understood to have received a payout worth more than £300,000 when he was made redundant in June. Just two months later it was announced he would take over as interim chief executive at University Hospitals of Leicester with a £100,000 salary."

What on earth is going on?

Well, some of it is no more than the gibbering incompetence we have to expect from government. But more fundamentally, it reflects the fact that these Big Government operations are impossible to manage. They are beyond control, and in reality, everyone now knows it.

Whatever they may say about reform and "transformational government", surely none of Brown's battered demoralised cabinet still believe it can be delivered. Not really. And none of the old-time mandarins ever believed it.

Tescos starts with the huge advantage of having customers. Their management is forced to do the right thing because the customers are the ones with the money. Simple as that.

But as we know, the public sector isn't set up on such a rational, results driven basis. To get its money, it must serve not real world customers, but dunderhead flip-flopping grandstanding politicos. Hence those huge centralised departments reporting to here today gone tomorrow luminaries like Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.

Nobody can manage a set-up like that. It's designed for failure, and nobody's really surprised when it comes about.

Paul Gray wasn't really responsible for HMRC's missing data discs, any more than his predecessor was responsible for the fraud and error now endemic in our tax system. Or any more than Baron Crisp was reponsible for our crisis-ridden NHS. Or Johnston McNeill was responsible for the fiasco at the Rural Payments Agency.

Of course, they must be fired when they fail. But it's not really their fault they can't manage the unmanageable. Without the customer imperative driving him in the right direction, it's unlikely Tesco Terry himself would do a whole lot better (see this blog for the ludicrous attempts to manage HMRC better).

The real problem is Big Government. It's beyond control.

And the only real solution is massive downsizing, decentralisation, and privatisation.

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