Dysfunction starts with government

Robert McCallion Blogs


Mathew Syed, whose book ‘Rebel Ideas’ I reviewed here recently, has an interesting piece in the Sunday Times this week.

In a lecture last week Michael Gove argued that the British civil service is characterised by deep dysfunctions.  He talked about the need for data, accountability and expertise.

Syed agrees with Gove’s analysis but argues that Gove, and the government advisor Dominic Cummings, do not apply this logic to themselves.  Ministers who ignore data and their own mistakes are doomed to fail.

Many public sector projects have had stupendous overspends including Eurotunnel and Crossrail.  When evaluating projects instead of evidence being used to make a judgement on cost and feasibility, evidence is assembled to reach a predetermined conclusion.  Syed quotes Richard Rumelt, a leading thinker on business strategy, who argues that ministers ‘fail to make any real choices’ and ‘mistake goals for a strategy’.

He argues that these dysfunctions in government have caused problems with the handling of the coronavirus:

  • Sage was insufficiently diverse, dominated by modellers and clinical academics, without enough frontline experts.
  • The government didn’t publish the advice so it could be scrutinised by outside experts.
  • When things went wrong the government didn’t create mechanisms of accountability or feedback loop to improve performance. They just claimed they ‘took the right decisions at the right time.’

Syed compares the government approach to the performance of the Mercedes team in the Austrian Grand Prix.  They have a ‘fail fast’ culture.  Everything is measured so that errors can be identified, and improvements acted upon.  The Mercedes chief strategist is quoted: ‘With a complex problem there is a lot that even experts don’t know….  That is why you challenge your assumptions quickly, figure out where your ideas are wrong, so you can improve them’

I have listened to numerous press conferences and interviews with government ministers during the coronavirus crisis but have yet to hear a government minister admit that any decision they made or action they took was wrong.

Syed perceptively points out, at the end of his piece, that we may be part of the problem as we, along with many TV and radio interviewers, blame ministers for every admission of failure, scapegoat them and humiliate them.

The complete article is well worth a read.

Chris Goodwin