Richard North, 16/07/2017  

I had a long talk with a fellow researcher the other day about defence issues and, in particular, the state of the Army. I recalled my own observations, where recruiters, desperate to make up numbers, were trawling the street of Glasgow, sweeping up the dregs of humanity.

The Army s with local colleges to improve the fitness of these youths, and to inculcate basic literacy and numeracy, sufficient for them to pass the already relaxed physical and educational requirements.

This was at a time (as now) when our troops were lauded as "the best in the world", while we were regaled with of tales of derring-do which, in the end, led to our ignominious retreat from Iraq and our unmitigated failures in Afghanistan.

At any time that one cared to visit the official MoD websites though, nothing of this – not the slightest hint would come through. Inevitably, we would read glowing accounts of skilled, dedicated personnel giving their all, contributing to the never-ending successes and glory of our military machine.

And so it is now with our "brilliant civil service", praised to the rafters by Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, writing on how it is preparing for Brexit.

With over 2,000 "new roles" so far created specifically to work on Brexit-related issues and a similar number to follow in the coming year – against a budget of £400 million in extra "resources", Sir Jeremy tells us his "brilliant" men and women will "continue" to need to apply best-in-class ways of working, meticulous scenario planning, detailed project management and, above all, deep cross-departmental collaboration.

As the last few years have shown, says Heywood, "the tougher the challenge and the more urgent the need, the more resilient our Civil Service is". Given our track record, our focus, and our careful planning, he adds, "I remain fully confident that the Civil Service has the skills, the experience and the leadership to help ministers secure the best possible Brexit deal for our country over the coming years".

Given the track record of the civil service, though – especially (but not exclusively) in the context of MoD officials - one of two possibilities come to mind when reading this sort of inane propaganda. Either Heywood is dealing with a failed (or failing) organisation which desperately needs a confidence boost, or the Cabinet Secretary actually believes what he is writing – in which case he is more deluded than his political masters.

Bluntly, I don't know which of these options is more terrifying, much less the possibility that Heywood believes we're stupid enough to be taken in by his propaganda.

Of course, it would help his case considerably if he could actually provide some evidence of the "brilliance" of his minions, but it is precisely the lack of such substance that warns us of the likelihood of impending disaster – the fact that we are being fed a diet of false confidence by someone who has either gravely under-rated difficulties in Brexit – or is seeking to deceive us as to the extent of the preparedness.

By contrast, a more sanguine report comes from the National Audit Office which last week published a report on the progress of the Customs Declaration Service (CDS) programme.

This is about the replacement for CHIEF and Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, who warns that the new system may not be ready in time for Brexit. With the best will in the world, the timetable is tight, the completion date being set for two months before we leave the EU. Morse is saying that ministers were only beginning to understand the momentous task of Brexit and that without further resources would find that "at the first tap, this falls apart like a chocolate orange".

Even in isolation, this report would have been a powerful contribution to the debate but, not only does it come as a confirmation to our own findings, it seriously understates the problems arising from Brexit.

When the new system finally does come on-line, commercial users will need to upgrade their software and train staff before they are fully operational. Bringing in a brand new system with just two months to go before Brexit isn't enough time.

This, though, is only the half of it. The main delays will not occur this side of the Channel but as goods are presented at the external borders of the European Union. What previously went through without checks will now be subject to checks which will impose delays ranging from hours to days.

Whatever limited control the UK Government might have over its own officials and systems, it has none at all over the customs services run by the French, Belgian and the Dutch governments, or anywhere else in the European Union.

Yet, in response to what actually amounts to a restrained warning from the NAO, Government sources describe Morse as "completely wrong", while former Brexit minister David Jones dismissed his comments as "grossly unfair".

It is matters such as these that raise serious questions, particularly as to why we are seeing what amounts to an epidemic of incompetence – an issue recently raised by JP Morgan Chase's CEO, Jamie Dimon.

He actually asks why governments in general are so bad at doing their jobs. You can criticise any chunk of society – banks, universities, car manufacturers, lawyers, journalists – for being badly managed and making huge errors. But Dimon, says the Independent will have struck a chord with many when he declared: "It's almost an embarrassment being an American travelling around the world".

He was frustrated by America's inability to invest in infrastructure and to overhaul the tax system. "There would be much stronger growth if there were more intelligent decisions and less gridlock", he said. "The United States of America has to start to focus on policy which is good for all Americans, and that is infrastructure, regulation, taxation, education".

Dimon offers three reasons for this dire situation which he concedes is not confined to the United States. The first, he says, is that governments are very big. In most developed countries they account for between 35-45 percent of GDP. About half of that is recycling money – taking in tax and social insurance payments and paying out benefits and pensions – while the other half is providing the whole range of services from defence to education, law and order, regulation, and so on.

Anything of this size, says Dimon, is not only going to be hard to manage but the sheer size means that things will go wrong. In any open society when things go wrong they will get publicity. So we are very aware of the weaknesses.

The second reason, he suggests, is that government is not only big but complicated. It is doing lots of different things, requiring different skills, and in a world economy that is becoming ever more complex too.

Thanks to this growing complexity the developed world has moved more from a system where governments provide service themselves to one where they buy in those services on behalf of the populace. Buying a service and managing the contracts requires a different set of skills from running something – and governments everywhere are not very good at that.

His third reason is that we have high expectations of government. That is partly the fault of politicians. The standard spiel of any politician is to say they can do something better and it won't cost the rest of us much more to do it. Then they fail and we get angry.

These are intriguing issues, but I don't think they get close to the real reasons why governments perform so badly.

Actually, the surprising thing is that so much of government works as well as it does, from monthly pension payments to sweeping the streets and persecuting motorists for straying into bus lanes. This is the routine, where things get done and continue to get done – in some ways better than in the private (corporate) sector, which in some areas manages to be seriously dysfunctional – especially when it comes to paying their bills.

Where the most egregious failures in government seem to occur is in developing new policy areas, in controversial sectors where there are frequent shifts in policy. The common factor in both is a high level of political input, combined with significant interaction between senior civil servants and politicians, all with strong media interest.

Arguably, since most government (and the most efficient part of government) runs itself more or less automatically, with virtually no input from politicians or top-level civil servants, and with no interest from the media, one could argue that the search for incompetence should rest with those three groups of players – politicians, senior civil servants and the media.

Here, one does not have to go very far to find precisely the thing one experiences in the execution of policy – an extraordinary level of personal incompetence. As to the reasons for that, I have my own theory.

To cut a very long story short – something which could easily merit a PhD thesis – a common factor (between all three groups) is an overweening ignorance, a peculiar kind of educated ignorance, if that isn't a contradiction in terms.

Taking this as the starting point, the important thing is the reason for this extraordinary situation and that is where my theory lies. What we have in the higher echelons of these three groups is an oral culture. These people no longer to any meaningful extent acquire information, or communicate it between themselves, via written media.

You see this especially with politicians. They have television news on in the their offices all the time; they scan but do not read newspapers, mainly looking for references to themselves. If you write them reports, they will ring you up and ask you to explain what's in them.

Their idea of "research" is to ask their assistants to look it up on the internet for them, or to invite a specialist to come to talk to them, to brief them on the essentials. The favoured few will get treated to lunch or dinner.

Journalists work very much the same way – especially the more senior ones. Their sources are almost entirely oral, and they will tend to use printed material only to identify potential sources, with whom they converse. You would be surprised how few print journalists actually read their own newspapers – but all of them constantly watch the news and current affairs programmes.

The senior civil servants are very much in same sort of frame – only they have an endless supply of minions who can be directed to carry our research for them. But the more "important" they are, the more likely they are to require oral briefing. And, of course, they will brief their ministers by mouth. 

Transfer of information orally is extraordinarily restrictive, in scale, scope and the extent to which it can be retained. Books are so rarely read that a huge corpus of information is, quite literally, a closed book. These people are superficiality incarnate, knowing next to nothing about almost everything.

But there is another factor which powerfully restricts the access of our groups to information – prestige. This has a double effect. On the one hand, it adds weight to information from people endowed with high-prestige. On the other, it creates a filter which excludes information from low-prestige persons.

With the test of acceptance being prestige, accuracy is not an issue. It is not even a valued attribute. Our "group of three" voluntarily cut themselves off from the mainstream. They feed each other, and feed off each other. In so doing, they create a closed loop – the archetypal bubble. This is, in effect, a third element – the complete exclusion of feedback, the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large.

So we have it: an oral culture, selection bias dominated by prestige and the exclusion of feedback. The result is the incompetence that dominates government. They are "brilliant" only in their own lunchtimes.

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