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Six ways to fix our failing government The problems illustrated by the exam fiasco cannot be blamed on a 'mutant algorithm' alone

Apart from that how did the government do? Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Apart from that how did the government do? Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images


September 2, 2020   4 mins

The recent A-Levels fiasco, in which thousands of school leavers were denied a place at their chosen university, was blamed on a “mutant algorithm” by the Prime Minister — a freak of nature accidentally released to roam the country’s classrooms, threatening to ruin everyone’s exams results until stopped in its tracks.

Compelling though the imagery is, we all know that the A-Levels shambles can’t be blamed on rogue formulae alone. The problems go so much deeper than that. I saw some of those deficiencies first hand when I served as Lead Non-Executive Director at the Department for Education between 2013 and 2016. Indeed, I participated in the appointment of the now-departed Permanent Secretary (of which, more below).

It’s clear that if the Government wants to usher in a brighter post-Brexit, post-Covid future it has to fix its own machinery — and this is the very challenge to which the independent Commission for Smart Government is devoted. Launched last month, it will spend the next year exploring how the UK can be better governed. As the recent grades debacle illustrated, there are many questions to which we need urgent answers.

First, where should accountability lie within Whitehall? The system is clear that financial accountability to Parliament lies with the Accounting Officer, usually the Permanent Secretary. Other types of accountability, however, are less transparent. Historically, at least, there has been a tendency for ministers to fall on their sword. This is in keeping with the “myth of ministerial accountability”, which is applied even when the fault is an operational one. The principle must surely remain that those we elect are ultimately accountable — but is it not possible to make a distinction between accountability for operational delivery (the responsibility of the civil service) and accountability for political strategy (the responsibility of ministers)?

Second, why do we so rarely appoint qualified external candidates as Permanent Secretaries? Back in 2016 I preferred two outside candidates for the DfE job. Ironically, one of those rejected was the very person who warned the Department of the risks arising from re-calibrating the exam results, and the other was head of the UK’s largest private exams assessment organisation. Their experience and skills might have proved invaluable.

Third, why do we call them “Permanent” Secretaries? The job title originated to underline their neutrality and distinguish them from Secretaries of State who come and go with each administration — usually too often. Permanent Secretaries are now appointed for five-year terms, yet the term “permanent” implies their position is secure with little accountability for failure, a title unseen in any other walk of life.

In recent months, some mandarins have begun to look less permanent than others, a small dawning of accountability, perhaps. Some commentators have greeted these unusual departures with shock, as though the removal of those who fail — something we expect in any other sector — was a problem. In fact, if anything needs to be made permanent it is proper accountability.

Fourth, what skills should we expect ministers to have? Of course, it is primarily their political talents that propel them to high office and equip them for the job. But what should they actually know about their subject? Should their position not require at least some domain expertise — a rare occurrence? Indeed, would not some management experience help? We appoint most ministers from the increasingly shallow gene pool of the House of Commons, when we could appoint more from the House of Lords (seeking out proven external talent and ennobling the new recruits). Yet this route has not always been successful. So how could we make the recruitment of talented ministers work better?

Fifth, Ofqual is, in Whitehall-speak, an “arm’s-length body” (ALB), of which there are anything between 100 and 900, depending on how you define them. According to the most recent National Audit Office report, the ALB sector “remains confused and incoherent. There is no single list of ALBs across government nor a common understanding of when ALBs should be used”. Furthermore, there’s an estimated ÂŁ110 billion of spending in ALBs which is exempt from spending controls — an eye-watering sum.

The NAO also says that there is “no collective understanding of what type of oversight is appropriate for different types of ALBs”. This was certainly my experience as a Non-Executive Director at DfE. Ministers were frustrated by the independence of ALBs like Ofqual and Ofsted and unclear about the extent to which they could intervene and interact. Ironically, ALBs were created to ensure that those with operational responsibility would be discrete, expert and accountable. In practice they result in no one knowing where accountability lies at all. When are ALBs justified and how should accountability mechanisms work?

Sixth, and finally, how can we improve the way Whitehall handles data? While the infamous algorithm has become a running joke, the fact is that we need to be able to make use of more data, and do so with confidence and common sense. Anybody versed in data knows that the outputs are only as good as the inputs, and that any algorithmic outputs need to be subjected to the scrutiny of common sense.

To paraphrase Gary Kasparov after he had been defeated by Deep Blue, “a machine beats a man but a man plus a machine beats a machine”. Yet how many in Whitehall, including politicians, have the numeracy to be able to interrogate assumptions, outputs and inputs? How do we address the numeracy deficit in our leaders? Increased use of data and technology in public services will require new and improved ways to upskill ministers and officials.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, has thankfully provided new impetus to improve IT capabilities within Whitehall, but we start from a very weak position. There are multiple legacy systems which don’t speak to each other and only 5% of government IT is in the cloud — an extraordinarily low number compared to the private sector or many other governments.

We are in a new era dominated by the knowledge economy, yet many of the practices and structures in Whitehall still hark back to the 19th century. Changes to the recruitment and training of civil servants and ministers alike must ensure that they are competent and equipped to deal with the major challenges that our country now faces.

Smart government has nothing to do with political ideology. Around the world executives of both Left and Right succeed or fail — but to succeed requires an executive that can deliver, offering accountability, incentives, competence and creativity. There is a growing appetite in this country for change — and the new Cabinet Secretary has a big job in leading a long-overdue Whitehall shake-up.

Sir Paul Marshall is a Member of the Commission for Smart Government governsmarter.org


Paul Marshall is UnHerd’s founder/publisher.

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Diarmid French
Diarmid French
3 years ago

I suspect, like many of you, I very much enjoyed watching Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. I was surprised when the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, commented how much she too enjoyed it and how frighteningly close to reality it was.
I suppose the humour came from the portrayal of the politician as incompetent and the Mandarins as devious.
For me that is a good description of our current system but without the humour.

Today the ineptitude of the politicians is frightening and the general belief is that the Civil Servants have become the manipulators of whatever government policy suits them best.
Naively I always thought it was the elected representatives who came up with the ideas and the mandarins who made it work or advised that it couldn’t be done.

It was the responsibility of the Fourth Estate to hold the government of the day to account and, even though they all had particular leanings, that pretty much seemed to happen within the print media. The electronic media was less definable politically and, with limited daily news programmes and an electorate less likely to want too much politics.

The advent of 24 hr TV, and more particularly 24hr rolling news created an environment where news was in our faces all day.

It didn’t take the politicians long to grasp the influence this media had nor the TV companies to realise the new powers they had created and how to use them to forward their own political view. and their bottom line. The days of generally unbiased broadcasting were over.

Working on what I believe is the current passion of our MP’s; get elected, get re-elected learn the TV voice and face, climb the greasy poll to cabinet level and retire with an honour and a very large bank account from assistance given to the private sector while in office or from a nice appointment to some very well remunerated position; university vice chancellor, quangocrat or director of a large international bank.

As we have seen over the last few months this makes them particularly vulnerable to the speed of information hitting them from all quarters and highlights their inability to have a firm policy which they can all support. Put simply they have no ability to sift the good info from the rubbish so they attempt to follow whatever seems the best option from wherever it may have come. Ask any good businessman whether he would ever create a committee of over 50 ” Experts” to decide government policy and he would look at you with disbelief.

Their historic lifeline, the media, has exacerbated this as they have an identical problem of too much information arriving too quickly from everywhere hence we see experts from wherever saying whatever to gain air time and print with any checking defrayed. Any accuracy is overrun by the need to react for a particular deadline.

This phenomenon is not new and has been identified by two university professors in Chicago;Timor Kuran & Cass Sunstein, as an “Availability Cascade” They describe this as a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception increasing plausibility through it’s rising availability in public discourse.

The driving mechanism involves a combination of informational and reputational motives.
Individuals endorse the perception partly by learning from the apparent beliefs of others and partly by distorting their public responses in the interests of maintaining social acceptance.

Availability entrepreneurs– activists who manipulate the content of public discourse– strive to deliver availability cascades likely to advance their own agendas. These campaigns may yield social benefits but in many cases bring harm.

I believe Covid 19 has let us witness, in glorious technicolour, an availability cascade completely out of control.

Put simply, if we cannot stop this happening, who governs us will be utterly irrelevant.
Events will simply take over at a speed no current government can respond to without risking their ability to get re-elected.

Kuran & Sunstein identify several examples of the effects, good and bad, of a cascade.
If you wish to read; google Kuran & Sunstein at Chicago Law, “Availability Cascade”

mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago
Reply to  Diarmid French

Yes Minister was a documentary,Yes Prime Minister a work of prophecy. John Major WAS Jim Hacker and Theresa May John Major in drag!

Diarmid French
Diarmid French
3 years ago
Reply to  Diarmid French

As you so rightly say there is repetition of a limited number of news stories which are regurgitated ad nauseam.
What Covid has done is to make the media use unverified, or unverifiable, information from all round the world to fill column inches, information which is at variance depending on where it has come from and what policy each country is adopting. Each government is attempting to highlight the success of their own methods, frequently by distorting their numbers to prove their own regulations are working. I fear our own are as guilty of this as any.
Having watched many ministers and their advisors put forward their “new” rules and regulations at 6 pm only for another minister to change them all by 9pm; clearly internal communication has broken down which sends a poor message about the captain’s leadership, not to mention the quality of his cabinet. Put simply, I don’t think they have a policy at all and certainly little courage.
I have some sympathy; on the one hand they have the cascade of contradictory information from SAGE and a myriad of other so called experts plus, and perhaps more important to them, the propaganda churned out by the media which they cannot or will not either ignore or criticise for fear of lost votes.

Up against the speed of information transfer and the power of the internet only a strong lean efficient government has a chance of prevailing…..Perhaps

I wonder whether anyone in our government has come to the conclusion that Covid 19 is no worse than our seasonal flu and should have been treated accordingly?

Gary Richmond
Gary Richmond
3 years ago
Reply to  Diarmid French

Spot on in my opinion

simon.j.floyd
simon.j.floyd
3 years ago

“The recent A-Levels fiasco, in which thousands of school leavers were denied a place at their chosen university.” This is true every year – people fail to get the required grades, because their abilities are different! Now that it has been replaced with “nobody can fail” the next headline in 3 years is obviously going to be “thousands of university leavers are denied a place at their chosen employer.” Obvious to most, but not to our education sector, and something that the govmt was obviously trying to avoid.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

“Fourth, what skills should we expect ministers to have?” – Not PPE for a start as Hancock demonstrates.

Liz Davison
Liz Davison
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

He is the epitome of an over-promoted apparatchik. His glib manner is used to disguise his cluelessness, but he has failed even at that attempted deception. The man is a fool, and a dangerous one at that.

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson
3 years ago
Reply to  Liz Davison

Hmm. I would be more inclined to say that his clueless manner betrays his cluelessness

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

It is not as if the rest of Tory MPs have PhDs in quantum chemistry.
Do you want Mark Francois as minister?

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

I agree with the overall sentiments and your comments, however, in my opinion as an ex IT Consultant & IT Manager, you demonstrate some lack of subject knowledge yourself. To use the percentage of IT in the cloud as a measure of performance is just plain wrong. I know government IT security lacks a certain rigor but if you really want the data everywhere put it in the cloud for hackers to access. The cloud is simply putting your data on someone else’s drives. Currently its cheaper. That can change and the cost of retrieving your data and moving it could well be greater than cost savings to date.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
3 years ago

The lesson is Government does nothing well. And that incompetence of epic proportion costs a bloody fortune. Less government, more independence and responsibility for each citizen. The end to the “Nanny state”

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

Tory Party (or should I say BoJo) has embraced big government. So your position is not politically viable (it never was btw}.

Hector Mildew
Hector Mildew
3 years ago

The author says:

“Smart government has nothing to do with political ideology.”

Without political ideology, there is no real politics. Politics is (or should be) ABOUT ideology. If it is not, it is about the management and administration of decline, and the appeasement of groups who have the most potential to disrupt the smooth and mutually co-operative working of society and individuals within society, whether it be the trades unions in the 1970s or the identitarians of today. The author gives the very strong impression that so long as we can come up with up more efficient algorithms, in other words, so long as we can progress AI, all will be well.

Alas, not. The appeasement will simply become more efficient.

trentvalley57uk
trentvalley57uk
3 years ago
Reply to  Hector Mildew

Couldnt agree more. Appeasing everybody appeases nobody. However it works better for those who shout the loudest frequently at the expense of the majority. Appeasement opened the door wide to let marxism pass through.The civil service all BLM supporters. How can they exact any impartiality when this ideology is so ensconced in everything from education, MOD Difid plus. A casade of virtue signalling determines policy

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Hector Mildew

Should political ideology (as you say) ignore technical advice from the mandarins?

Hector Mildew
Hector Mildew
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

No, I don’t think that’s possible. All governments have to take advice. I suppose it really depends on whether the advice is purely technical, or whether it is politically motivated. Hard to tell sometimes I admit, because an awful lot of technical “advice” is based on selective statistics.

But in recent times I think we have had administrations who, while at the outset setting out a broad ideological vision of what sort of society they want to help create, have ended up allowing the mandarin tail to wag the government dog in true Sir Humphrey fashion, either through lack of courage or lack of vigilance..

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Hector Mildew

The biggest thing in recent times was/is Brexit – please show me in details the plan (developed by politicians) that you expected the mandarins to execute.
To paraphrase sir Humphrey:
Bernard: “If it is our job to carry out government policies shouldn’t we believe in them?”
Humphrey: I have served 11 governments in the past 30 years. If I have believed in all their policies I would have been pro EC and against EC; pro nationalization and against nationalization; pro and against grammar schools; pro Keynes and pro Friedman; pro and against the death penalty.

“Sir Humphrey Appleby on the Proper Function of Government”
YouTube Video

Hector Mildew
Hector Mildew
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Brexit is hardly a good example while negotiations are ongoing. Ask me in a year’s time.

There have however been anonymous allegations (they would have to be anonymous) from people working in the Civil Service that it is deliberately trying to undermine the Government’s negotiating position.

Maybe these are a pack of lies, and the CS is doing its damnedest to deliver the Government’s project under difficult, confusing and constantly changing circumstances, as you suggest. Who knows? It depends on which newspapers you read.

Perhaps my last sentence should have ended “allowing the mandarin tail to wag the government dog in true Sir Humphrey fashion, through lack of courage, lack of vigilance, or lack of clear vision.” The point is surely that when the mandarins are given the opportunity to take the initiative as a result of government
shortcomings, they will do so, and perhaps sometimes they even have to do so. I don’t think any of this negates my original point which was that governments should have an ideology or clear vision instead of just bumbling along reacting to things as they happen.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Hector Mildew

“Brexit is hardly a good example while negotiations are ongoing. Ask me in a year’s time.”
I asked you to provide the plan as detailed by the politicians.

“There have however been anonymous allegations…”
And there have been anonymous allegations about the ignorance/delusions of the elected politicians.

“It depends on which newspapers you read.”
Listen to the politicians themselves. Ian Duncan Smith told us (HofC) that he knew everything there was to know about the Withdrawal Agreement; only to pop out in the DT and twitter and complain about “the fine print”…6 months later.

Michael Gove:
“Politicians like me,” Mr Gove said in his Ditchley annual lecture last month, “must take responsibility for the effect of their actions and the consequences of their announcements.”

“free trade with minimal bureaucracy”
“…that customs declarations alone will cost companies £7bn a year. That’s £135m a week.”
Yet, when asked about Brexit preparations last Sunday, he replied: “Some of the criticism has come ” how can I put this? ” there’s an element of Captain Hindsight.”

Actually, it was Captain Foresight. Nearly every expert predicted that leaving the single market and the customs union would require regulatory barriers and restrictions on travel. Brexiters like Mr Gove obfuscated.

PS. I don’t agree with the editorial line of Guardian (and many of its columnists) but let’s not pretend that the news reporting at the Guardian/FT/Times is in the same level as DT/Sun/Express/DM.
PPS. Governments should have a clear goal/ideology while they are in power. Politicians often muddle along because that is life. We just muddle through. The real problem (IMHO) is that politicians get elected by making promises they can not deliver, the voters NEVER take responsibility for their vote and in the middle are the bureaucrats trying to manage the incompetence/delusions of the politicians and the irresponsibility of the voters. I have only known 2 civil servants (USA) in my life. Both had a healthy sense of duty toward the country and the people.

Martin Bartholomew
Martin Bartholomew
3 years ago

This is all very illuminating. Thank you. But how can we make any political and operational system work if our polarised voting system can only elicit short term thinking led by the fringes of political thought? How if our temporary masters only seem to embrace policies and strategies that will please the crowd and win the next election.

We will never get on top of the 10/20 year thinking needed to address crucial matters of infrastructure, climate change, inequality of opportunity, economic strategy, national care/health service…..need one go on? How do we enlist the longer term commonsense of our people? The pendulum of sectional expediency used to be damped by our very fine Civil Service. No more, it seems.

Is the answer in the centre ground of our thinking? Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas – you have only to breathe ‘proportional representation’ to see the polarised political classes unite to head it off….ironic really. In my view, there will never be comity in our land until we untie this knot. Please discuss.

richardw
richardw
3 years ago

Commission for smart government…….This will not end well. And the very fact that <5% of government systems are in the cloud is irrelevant. The fact that they don’t work, few people are available to fix them and the majority of ministers have no understanding of how to implement anything is.

David Bouvier
David Bouvier
3 years ago

The infamous “algorithm” was given a fundamentally impossibe task and could never have worked.

Every year schools offer predicted A-level grades for University admissions and work ghas been done comparing predicted to achieved grades. It so happens that grades are on-aveage over-stated and more so for less able candidates.Significant down-grading from teacher estimates caused upset but was entirely proper.

But there is also considerable random variation at the candidate-level (“performance-on the day”, “luck” etc). Which means predicted grades should be less spread out than the actually received grades and the people at the very top and bottom of the range will quite often not be the people with the lowest predicted grades. It is utterly unfair to award – say – U’s to the bottom 2.5% of candidates where they had pretty much the same chance of getting a pass as the next 2.5%. And without some kind of exam or evaluation we can NEVER know.

This problem is fundamental rather than one that can be fixed with some diffferent algorithm.

titan0
titan0
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bouvier

I don’t know how it would have worked in my day because I was the first person in my school to ever take a science exam. Ergo, no existing data to pass on to an algorithm requiring such.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

You can not have a good government without political ideology. Why bother running for power if you are not going to use power to get stuff done?
The real issue, and the author didn’t cover it, is the gap between electoral politics and economic/social/technological reality.
Thousands of years ago a very very smart Greek warned us about politicians getting elected by making promises they can not possible deliver. And in the middle of lying politicians, delusional population lies the technocracy (Whitehall)!
The people NEVER take responsibility for their vote, politicians use the public spotlight to blame the technocrats and…..here we are.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago

Prior to the 1950s many politicians had experience. Land owners ran estates and gave us the Agricultural Revolution; those owning industries were the local MPs; many had served in the Armed Forces and seen combat; many had years of industrial experience( miners ). The sort of MP who does not exist; Murdo MacDonald was a Chartered Engineer, who built railways in Scotland, the Aswan Dam, served with Allenby In Palestine in WW1 reaching the rank of Colonel in the RE; designed irrigation schemes in the Indus Valley and founded an engineering consultancy. We now have pen pushers with PPE degrees. Wisdom requires one to be tempered by experience but few have been through testing times.

In France civil servants come from the Grand Ecoles, civil, mining, electrical, etc to run the technical civil service such as transport and nationalised industries. Also career promotion depends upon successful delivery whereas in the UK arts graduates run technical departments and are promoted every two years so no-one is punished for failure. The execution of Admiral Byng did wonders to motivate RN officers.

Solution recruit Chartered Engineers to run transport, energy, defence, agriculture, NHS and link salary to medical consultants. Need engineers with design, build and operate experience. If someone can design and build the construction of £Bs worth of mine. oil field, airport, docks, power station, aircaft carrier, etc they can build a motorway. What is needed is cross between Indian Civil Service and French Technical Civil Service /Grand Ecoles mentality. A small number of technically innovative driven engineers blessed with foresight ; combining Brindley, Wedgewood, Stephenson , Wallis expertise supported by technically competent people who can think and act fast. Historically the best went to India and the Sudan and the dregs stayed in Whitehall. Wellington said he always tried to imagine what was behind the hill. He used his sagacity to try and predict what might happen.

What we want are innovative and intrepid leaders who have experience of solving problems and unexpected emergencies.

We could try something unique and aim for sagacious government!