Thursday, 12 June 2014

Government too managerial? No, not enough

The current passport scrimmage is a further illustration of the lack of basic administrative nous on the part of government ministers. I have already blogged about Iain Duncan Smith's failure to comprehend what he had taken on in Universal Credit (and recent reports emphasise this). Now it appears that executives in the Passport Office warned months ago that there was going to be an above-average surge in passport applications. Even if these were not taken on board by senior civil servants, the latter should have realised that increasing prosperity, which had reached those on middle incomes if not those at the bottom of the pile, meant that more people would have wanted to take overseas trips, inhibited by the economic crunch of the previous five years. Simon Calder demonstrated the simple arithmetic necessary on Radio 4's PM programme recently. In the first five months of this year, the Home Office received 3.3m applications, 350,000 greater than same period last year. Calder said that in two minutes "on the back of a boarding pass" one could show that projection of 310,000 extra for air travel, using figures from the Civil Aviation Authority's report back in January. Then one has to allow for travellers by train and ferry, which number one can assume to rise proportionately.

Theresa May's only possible excuse is that her civil servants and special advisers had not raised the problem with her - but what does that say about her management style? It appears that she was not told about attempts to reduce the passport application backlog by cutting checks and only learned about it by a roundabout route.

It is clear that government has become managerial only in so far as it manages its own publicity. I am not arguing for appointing technocrats to ministerial office, but for ministers learning a bit about the function of government, if they don't already have experience of managing a business or other real work. It would also help if top civil servants were less orientated towards the political effects of decisions and went back to a traditional view of their jobs.

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