How do politicians make their servants do what they’re told? In the 600+ quasi independent public bodies – all with different powers, purposes, and appointment processes – how do ministers know enough to penetrate the complexity of it all and make workers work and managers manage in the public interest?
From Railtrack to the Care Quality Commission to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, very many of the state’s functions have been given just enough freedom for ministers, in Kelvin Hopkins’ cynical estimation, “to avoid blame but to retain control”.
These bodies regularly appear in front of select committees. Through a combination of blocking answers, holding answers, smoke, gas, offers to write to the committee, structural abstractions, refusal to answer the question – by the whole panoply of administrative passive aggression – these bodies do not answer to Parliament.
The Public Administration Committee is feeling its feckless way into the question.
Witnesses from the Institute of Government and the University of Birmingham gave every appearance of knowing more about it than the committee, but as most witnesses in front of committees do, they dealt in frameworks, management structures and efficiency gains.
“Aren’t we chasing minnows while the fat salmon swim past untroubled?” Paul Flynn asked (he’s hired a new lyricist). He referred to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority where contracts double in cost, years are added to projects, and the next big bill presented by the American firm running the Authority will be around £93bn – massively, monstrously more than any efficiency savings that could be made by all the other public bodies put together.
He said the KPMG report into the Nuclear Decom record was so thoroughly redacted that all the complaints about management were removed.
This is known. And this is where the action is. Bernard Jenkin’s inquiry is starting well back from the starting line.
Select committees in their current form aren’t up to this great work. They are poorly-prepared, insufficiently co-ordinated, and lack the skills – and often even the will – to nail these wretches’ feet to the floor and beat the truth out of them.
The story continues. Let’s have a look at the BIS committee on Royal Mail, next.