Rampant managerial incompetence has been a major characteristic of Johnson’s government. Will this change under Liz Truss?
It is said that the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ was instrumental in winning the 2019 general election for the Conservative Party. Certainly there were other factors involved, but elections do seem to be influenced by over-simplified, broad-brush slogans (Make America Great Again and Drain the Swamp won it for Trump in 2016).
Actual government is not about winning elections. The dire performance of the present Government (and many previous Governments) in office is proof of that. Actual government is an all-consuming management activity – balancing resources, policies, people, crises, outcomes, expectations and more, in a constantly changing world. Total success is nigh impossible, ‘good enough’ would be an excellent result, but what we mostly get, especially with the current Government, is failure after failure in all areas.
Disgracefully, what we also get, especially from this dishonest Government, is failure dressed up as success. That is unforgiveable in a society which used to pride itself on being a democracy.
What lack of proper, competent management and leadership looks like
There are countless recent examples of blatant managerial incompetence by this Government, but here are a few:
Afghanistan Withdrawal. The USA’s withdrawal was known about months before August 2021. The UK had enough time to prepare, but what we mostly saw in August was chaos, last minute management panic. Thousands of vulnerable people were left behind, poor instructions about exit arrangements were given, key people were on holiday, civil servants were understaffed, under-qualified and under-briefed. The Prime Minister, with his usual contempt for truth, trumpeted it as the most successful military operation since the Second World War.
Ukraine Refugees. There were months of advance notice that Russia was intending to invade. But there was no preparation for receiving refugees. Haphazard last-minute refugee programmes were put in place, causing agonising problems for those Ukrainians wanting to come to the UK but who were unable to do so because of visa documentation and communication difficulties. The Prime Minister trumpeted it all as a great success.
Ambulance Service. Ambulance wait times have been sky-rocketing for months because they can’t discharge patients quickly into overloaded Accident and Emergency Departments at hospitals. The causes are well-known, and are perfectly treatable by creative management, but no plan has been made. Months after the problem emerged, the Health Secretary announced (19/7/22) some extra staff and money. This is management failure stemming from paralysis at the top. Meanwhile, patients suffer or die.
Maternity Hospitals. Multiple failures at several hospital trusts have been occurring over decades. Outside regulation and audit (Care Quality Commission and others) has been extraordinarily slow, weak and ineffective. Report after report is issued, promises made, and the under-performance continues. Government asleep.
Mental Health Services. Widely regarded as deeply inadequate, but no changes made, no dent in the under-performance. Meanwhile, patients suffer. Government uninterested.
Test and Trace. While South Korea and New Zealand showed what was possible, the UK Government handed out print-your-own-money contracts to consultants and outsourcing companies with no experience in the sector. The result was a weak and largely ineffective protection system and very high COVID death rate. Total management failure by the DOH.
GP Surgeries. Wide agreement that services are over-loaded and appointment waits too long but no meaningful management changes have been made. Plenty of management options are available to improve the situation, but no action is taken and the situation worsens.
Child Protection. So many heart-rending cases of incompetence, stretching over decades, each repeating the same mistakes. Shortage of trained professionals, absence of cooperation between agencies, and legal holdups. No serious effective solutions have been implemented, reflecting an appalling absence of competent leadership from the top.
Police. Case after case of incompetent investigations, biased work, rife sexism, misogyny, racism, in-house illegality and abuse, huge gaps in enforcement of criminal law especially in relation to fraud, rape and the failure to prosecute grooming gangs. Almost nothing has been done to improve the situation, and public confidence is at rock bottom. Mind-blowingly incompetent.
Prisons and Probation Service. Long overdue reforms are urgently needed to reduce prisoner numbers, improve prisoner education and rehabilitation programmes, enforce prisoner rules about drugs and radicalisation, and revise the probation system to align it better with public attitudes. But nothing has been done.
Domestic. The Obesity and Dimbleby Food Report programmes were diluted or side-lined by the Prime Minister, who was afraid of offending a few ultra right-wingers in his Party. A bottle deposit scheme was not implemented. The Safer Streets programme was abandoned. Voluntary schemes with food manufacturers and retailers predictably haven’t delivered results. Straightforward system management initiatives widely approved by the public have not been implemented properly or at all.
Immigration. The disgraceful treatment for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants seeking visas and coming to live or work in the UK has worsened. Some of this is deliberate and cynical Government policy, with the object of creating a hostile environment, beating a nationalistic drum against the EU and winning votes from the Tory Party base. But much is simply poor management, such as inadequate housing, over-exuberant officialdom and bureaucracy, poor IT systems, under-qualified and untrained staff, and unnecessary legal delays. Shameful.
Port delays. Brexit was self-inflicted damage. Damage limitation required that becoming a third country involved new EU entry and exit rules for people and goods. But with its lack of planning and its stop-start implementation of border checks at Dover and Belfast, Government has seemed to maximise the damage so that it can blame the EU. This is tantrum politics, inflicting unnecessary pain on travellers and exporters, damaging trade and wasting millions.
School exams during the pandemic. This was undoubtedly a challenging situation, but the Department for Education made matters a lot worse with their didactic and under-researched imposition of a computerised rule for exam marking, and then its withdrawal. Administrative cock-up hardly covers it.
Validation of Teacher Training Institutions. A new accreditation process from the DfE for Teacher Training Institutions, including Universities, announced last year, means just 80 out of 216 Institutions were successful and were given permission to continue training teachers beyond 2024 (Guardian). Professor Spendlove, ex head of the Teacher Training Institute at Manchester University, said:
‘The new process is “damaging the very bedrock” of university teacher education and it is now harder to stay in it than to leave. People who have been doing this for a very long time are being told they aren’t fit for purpose, despite all the positive inspections they’ve been through. That’s a farce’.
Water Companies. They are doing what private equity companies do, loading the company with debt, abusing their monopoly and risk-free positions to extract maximum profits and dividends, while discharging their responsibilities in a minimalist way, so that sewage pumps into rivers, pipes leak and reservoirs are not built. Meanwhile OFWAT, the Environment Agency and DEFRA watch on and fail to manage the industry properly so that taxpayers and citizens are properly served. Utterly abysmal.
The common theme is of scandalous incompetence stemming from lack of intent, capability, and creative leadership in Government, and a seemingly complete absence of interest and drive in making things work better from Number 10 Downing Street.
There are so many examples across all Departments of cockeyed administration and absent management from the senior ranks in the Government and at the top of powerful organisations. Cock-ups are the new norm. These failures impact on citizens’ lives, sometimes in painful and deadly ways. They also contribute to Government waste, lost productivity and a strong sense of a damaged society (see The Rowntree Trust, ‘Stagnation Nation’).
Allies of the outgoing Prime Minister don’t contradict the narrative that he is ‘not a details man’. Critics complain, justifiably, that he is not a serious politician. Partygate showed a man unserious and careless by nature. We are advised that he is to be thought of as a ‘big picture man’ who gets the big calls right. But nothing could be further from the truth. We’d all be a lot better off without Johnson’s big calls and visions.
Competent management and attention to detail is the main business of Government. It is the unglamorous bread and butter of Government activity, something we all desperately need, not new election winning slogans, the next day’s headlines, the next culture wedge (as described by Andrew Rawnsley, The Party Animal,), or saving Big Dog.
A Prime Minister who isn’t bothered with competent, detailed management of the important and difficult business of Government is a liability, setting the tone for the rest of the Government. His cabinet appointments reflected that.
Will we get a change from Liz Truss? The omens are poor. Judging from her public appearances and statements, her flaws include limited reasoning powers, inflexibility, a closed mind, limited willingness to learn and engage, a black and white approach to policy-making, wooden communication skills, and favouring soundbites and photo-opportunities over detail. Her record in various senior Government Ministries has been unconvincing, apparently driven more by disturbing and disabling ideology than mature judgement and consideration of the facts.
These flaws are unlikely to disappear once in office, and it appears likely that we will continue to suffer from increasingly absurd posturing and continued managerial incompetence from Government.