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The world we could lose

By Rod Rhodes


Ministers want to make a difference. Prime ministers talk about their legacy. Governments are always trying to reform something. They ask ‘what can we change?’ They should also ask ‘what could we lose?’

I start at the bottom of the hierarchy to illustrate the point. What will be lost when tea ladies go? British government departments had messengers who delivered mail. Their tasks became more diverse. It mattered not. E-mail, the coffee machine, the out-sourced delivery of food and the microwave oven decimated their tasks. Yet most meetings would start with tea or coffee and biscuits. Every cup of tea signalled the meeting of a London accent with middle-class vowels to discuss the weather, TV, a new baby, or how you are – to which the answer is ‘well, thank you’ – any itemising of complaints would be well out of order. It breaks tension. In stressful situations, people relax and breathe out. Perhaps it is the music of our cribs, but the clatter of cups and saucer, the sound of a teaspoon on china, is wondrously reassuring. Few see the demise of the messenger as an example of work being depersonalised, but that is one consequence. Their covert role as office glue has been lost.

The problem recurs at the top of the hierarchy. To develop a ‘can-do’, managerial civil service, senior appointments from outside the civil service became more common. The problem was such appointments did not understand local folklore and practices. Newcomers had not been socialised in the service’s traditions. They had not sat across the desk from a mentor learning the rules of the Whitehall village game. They had no patron to advise them on career development. They had not worked the rites of passage through a private office, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. So, loyalty becomes conditional and contingent replaced by formal mechanisms of management which replace the glue of trust and shared codes. One newcomer conceded the point:

 It’s the first time I ever worked with a national politician. And that’s the bit that was a serious learning curve. And a bit uncomfortable. No doubt at all that at that stage my credibility was knocked with the Department because I appeared to be going in one direction and he appeared to be coming across. It looked as if management was just sort of knocked out the way by the politician. I have learned that for politicians and for this politician in particular, they do business in corridors, on sofas, talking on the phone as opposed to a more systematic fashion.

From Harold Wilson onwards, all prime ministers have supported some reform or other of the civil service. No one bothered to ask what could be lost. Had they done so, they might have noticed that one key unintended consequence was the loss of institutional memory.

Institutional memory is the store house for the stories people tell one another. In both public and private organizations, managers use stories to gain and pass on information and to inspire involvement. Stories are also as the repository of the organization’s institutional memory. Most, if not all, civil servants will accept that the art of storytelling is an integral part of their work. Such phrases as: ‘Have we got our story straight?’, ‘Are we telling a consistent story?’, and ‘What is our story?’ abound. Civil servants and ministers learn and filter current events through the stories they hear and tell one another. Stories explain past practice and events and justify recommendations for the future. Institutional memory and the stories provide the everyday theory and shared languages for storytelling. It is the collective memory of the department; a retelling of yesterday to make sense of today. Without it, ministers have no context for decisions. They do not know which policies have succeeded and failed in the past. The recipe for losing it is straight forward: high staff turnover, annual postings, internal reorganizations, managerial reform, especially the successive waves of the delivery agenda, and new IT systems. It can be no surprise that ministers complain about the loss of institutional memory, and they do.

I visited one office that had a nigh 100% turnover of staff in recent months. There was one exception; the clerical officer responsible for the files. By default, she became the office’s institutional memory. If anyone wanted to know what had been done before, she could find the relevant file and embellish its sparse account with her memories of who was around at the time. It was a salutary reminder of the need to preserve institutional memory and that one person’s filing system is another person’s maze.

Do not for one moment believe that the case for preserving these features of the status quo appeals only to civil servants. Ministers have a vested interest in preserving them too. Given that ministers live in a media gold fish bowl that can inflict many a rude surprises, a key maxim is ‘no surprises’. This can refer to the private office making sure the Minister and permanent secretary are in the right place at the right time and with the right papers. It can also refer to the frightening extent to which they live in the media eye and need to be adaptable, to cope with the many eruptions. Private offices exist to domesticate trouble, to defuse problems, and to take the emotion out of a crisis. Permanent secretaries exist to point out the holes to the ministers before they fall in, to pull them out of the hole afterwards, and then to argue that they never fell in. This world of is a closed world; a cocoon. Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries have overlapping roles and responsibilities. At the heart of management reform is the relationship between ministers and their top civil servants, and it is an ambiguous, shifting relationship dependent on events, personalities and rude surprises. Reforms have left it untouched and ministers want it to so.

Much government is about the appearance of rule. According to Yes Minister, government is: ‘about stability. Keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow’. I do not seek, as did the authors of the quote, to make people laugh. In this witticism is much wisdom, not cynicism. Rather than endlessly changing the civil service, perhaps we could start with identifying and repairing the bits we want to preserve.

Rod Rhodes is Professor of Government in the School of Government at the University of Tasmania. He is also a Professor Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, and Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Newcastle (UK). Previously, he was the Director of the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘Whitehall Programme’ (1994-1999); Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University (2005-7); and Director of the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University (2007-8). He is the author or editor of some 30 books, the most recent of which is Everyday Life in British Government.

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