Erosion of knowledge and integrity in governments

A recent Economist article on the British civil service features some observations that are true of government bureaucracies more broadly:

In part, churn reflects career incentives. Mid-ranking policy officials talk of being encouraged to move every 18 months to gather experience, pay and promotion. But it also reflects a deeper malaise, argues Jonathan Slater, a former permanent secretary (the most senior department official) at the Department for Education: a culture which prizes the ability to “handle” ministers and “fix” political problems. John Kingman, a former Treasury bigwig, has claimed there is a “disdain” for deep knowledge. A pyramidal structure of older managers at the top and younger generalists at the bottom does not provide a home for well-paid, experienced experts.

What does it matter if some officials are unhappy? Because, say experienced Whitehall-watchers, the delicate compact at the heart of Britain’s system of government is being degraded. Telling a secretary of state what they don’t wish to hear is never easy. Candid advice becomes that much rarer in a civil service that is inexperienced, criticised, poorly led and short on evidence of what works. In the staff survey in 2021, just 54% of civil servants agreed that it is “safe to challenge the way things are done”. For good ministers, that lack of candour can be frustrating. For bad ones, it is a recipe for blunders—which degrades their trust in civil servants even more. Rival sources of advice, such as think-tanks and party gurus, fill the void and the civil service’s authority is eroded yet further.

It is very, very hard — perhaps impossible — to create organizations that serve the broad long-term interests of society, rather than the narrower and shorter-term interests of the people inside those institutions and the people who those institutions serve. That gets even worse for issues like climate change, where the benefits of ignoring it and making the problem worse arrive in hard cash in the here-and-now, while the costs get spread out across time and space and made invisible by the apparent lack of cause and effect.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

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