What’s in a Name? For some people rather too much, apparently….

Stefan Czerniawski, who goes under the blog name “Public Strategist”, has written a rather ill-informed and intemperate attack on a report we have just published based purely on the use of the term “Sir Humphrey” in the title.

Firstly, Stefan should issue a public apology for his completely sexist ignoring of the fact that the report in question was co-authored by Dr. Carole Talbot and myself. Carole apparently doesn’t exist as far as Stephan is concerned. Which suggests he either didn’t read the report before launching his diatribe or, worse, did and chose to ignore my co-author.

Second, his comments about using “Sir Humphrey” in the title is a stretch, to put it mildly.

We used the term “Sir Humphrey” (“Sir Humphrey and the Professors – What Does Whitehall Want From Academics?”) purely as short-hand, a signal that this was about the Senior Civil Service. In our experience far more people recognize the term “Sir Humphrey” to refer to senior members of the Whitehall establishment than have seen “Yes Minister”. It no greater portend than that, which is clear to anyone who actually reads the report properly.

I am tempted to suggest that Mr Czerniawski is another poor soul who has fallen amongst post-modernist deconstructionists. He is reading far too much into a single phrase.

“Sir Humphrey”, rather like “Mandarins” before it, has simply become a popular short-hand for the senior denizens of Whitehall, which is who our survey was about. (Incidentally, Stefan, a number of Grade 1 (Permanent Secretary level) civil servants did complete our survey).

Maybe we should apologise for trying too hard to make our research “impactful”, as the current fashion has it. But I must say it’s a novel sensation to be criticized, as an academic, for trying to be too populist (except by other academics that is).

What would be interesting to know is what Stefan thinks about our actual report, rather than his long-winded critique of a single phrase that is used just once – in the title.

Having said all that there is a serious debate to be had about to what degree the senior civil service has actually changed in the past 30 years. Stefan seems to think a lot: “Sir Humphrey was a permanent secretary thirty years ago. I think we can take it that he retired long since. We should let him go.”

Personally I would beg to differ, and have written rather a lot over the years showing in what respects the institutional configurations of Whitehall and its central actors have not fundamentally changed, despite some superficial modifications. They never were “Sir Humphrey” in any literal sense, but “Yes Minister” did capture some truths about how Whitehall worked and still, in large measure, does. But that’s another debate.

 So how about an apology to Carole, and a blog about our actual report, Stefan?


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Mandela – a musical tribute

I was involved in the struggle against apartheid from 1970 onwards. Whilst I was involved in all sorts of campaigns in the 70s and early 80s, it was the 1988 70th Birthday Concert for Mandela that lifted to campaign to new heights. And central to this new phase was music – joyous, liberatory, defiant, music. Below is my own, completely idiosyncratic, ‘top ten’ bits of music that – for me – symbolise the striggel against one of the world’s most evil regimes – apartheid South Africa

Nelson Mandela – Specials – the song that more than any other captured the spirit of the campaign. (join the campaign to make this the Christmas number one for 2013)

Mandela Day – Simple Minds

Mandela (live) – Hugh Masakela

Mandela – Salif Keita

Mandela – Santana

Biko – Peter Gabriel – the song that became an anthem for a new generation of anti-apartheid activists in the late 80s.

Impi – Johnny Clegg – once a song buy a despised progressive, now the unofficial anthem of the Springboks. The world turns.

Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City – Steven van Zant

You have placed a chill on my heart – Annie Lennox – a she sang it at the Birthday concert in 1988, dedicated to Madiba – chilling indeed.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – nuff said.

Finally, I’d add a tribute to George Michael. he performed a magical set of three numbers by black artists in 1988. As he came off stage a somewhat naive TV reporter asked him “was there any significance to you choosing to cover songs from three bald artists?” To which George replied: “what do you think?”

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Whitehall Watch has gone, to a better place…

Dear friends, colleagues and readers,

Whitehall Watch has gone – but just to a better place. It has now joined what will be a suite of blogs under the umbrella of Manchester Policy Blogs.

If you have come here (by mistake) then please just click this www.manchester.ac.uk/whitehallwatch and it’ll take you to the new home of Whitehall Watch.

After nearly four years and over 180,000 hits I have to say it’s been a wrench “letting go”.  It has been quite a journey, with more than a few unexpected twists and turns. Above all WW has had far greater impact than I ever thought possible. And reach – it’s extraordinary that its been read in over 140 countries. But, onwards and upwards… so join me and us at our new home.


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Government defeats over public money in Parliament (crowd sourcing examples)

This is an appeal for a bit of research help from Whitehall Watch’s highly knowledgeable readership…..

There is a widespread belief – often repeated  in serious academic texts – that any defeat on ‘budget’ or ‘money’ motions in the House of Commons is tantamount to a vote of no confidence. I’m grateful to Prof Philip Cowley for pointing out this isn’t actually true in practice   – there have been about 20 cases, at least, of defeats since 1918 (see table below) none of which was treated as a vote of confidence. Continue reading

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Britons say no to smaller state (BSA 30)

By Colin Talbot, University of Manchester

Britain is still a majority social-democratic country. That is, politically, the most significant finding of the latest British Social Attitudes survey published this week. Most people want a country which “gets and spends” about what we do now, or even more, rather than less. The BSA figures seem to contradict the often heard assertion that the British people want Scandinavian levels of public services for American levels of taxes. Continue reading

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‘Universal Credit’ Crunch Arrives (as I predicted it would)

Today’s NAO Report on Universal Credit implementation is one of the hardest hitting critiques in living memory from a usually restrained institution. I would say “I hate to say I told you so”, but I don’t ‘hate to say it” and I did, three years ago. But first the NAO’s verdict:

“The National Audit Office has concluded that the Department for Work and Pensions has not achieved value for money in its early implementation of Universal Credit. …

Today’s report concludes that the Department was overly ambitious in both the timetable and scope of the programme. The Department took risks to try to meet the short timescale and used a new project management approach which it had never before used on a programme of this size and complexity. It was unable to explain how it originally decided on its ambitious plans or evaluated their feasibility.”

Devastating stuff, but not unexpected, as there’s been a steady trickle of stories about UC’s problems.

So Predictable.

In a post on my own Whitehall Watch and on the ‘Public Finance’ blogsite, in November 2010, I spelt out why the implementation of Universal Credit was likely to be a disaster. I think the broad thrust of what I said then still holds true today.

I have heard some blame being attached to Iain Duncan Smith – the funniest quip I’ve heard is “what do you expect when you send a Lieutenant to do a Generals job?” (a reference to IDS’s undistinguished military service, which he’s always made a lot of). He has certainly suffered from a large dose of hubris about what it is possible to do and on what timescales. Continue reading

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Limit public service competition to non-profits

Post written by Colin Talbot for The Conversation.

The idea that competition is better than monopoly provision in public services is now established wisdom among the British political elite. Since the advent of something commonly called “New Public Management” in the early 1980s, privately managed organisations have been taken to be more efficient and innovative than public ones.

But is there, to coin a phrase, a third way? Competition without private interest companies? The belief that the private sector is inherently good has meant Continue reading

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Has the Office for Budget Responsibility achieved genuine independence from government?

Having been established by the government to take the politics out of fiscal and economic forecasting, the independence of the Office for Budget Responsibility is fundamental to its credibility and legitimacy. The appointment of Robert Chote as Chair in 2010 appears to have enhanced the OBR’s standing in this regard, but has not completely swept away all concerns about the OBR’s relationship to government. On the day the OBR releases its latest analysis of the UK’s public finances, Craig Berry and Richard Berry ask whether the agency has yet been able to break free from the political grasp of the Treasury.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) was established to help ensure the government’s fiscal and economic forecasts are credible and transparent. The key innovation designed to achieve this objective was that the OBR would be independent of the Treasury, and therefore outside direct ministerial control. When Robert Chote was appointed as the second Chair of the OBR in 2010 – an appointment approved by Parliament – it appeared to confirm that the agency would be genuinely independent. Indeed, there is no reason to doubt the impartiality of the OBR’s analysis. The idea that the OBR acts with complete autonomy, however, is highly questionable – it remains a very small organisation, integrated almost seamlessly with the Treasury apparatus. Continue reading

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NYT Excerpt: Radical Accounting And The Value Of Ideas

I thought this as interesting enough to share….. especially as an awful lot of public management reform is predicated on trying to replicate in the public sector the sort of outmoded private sector practices discussed below….

July 30, 201312:49 PM

In his New York Times Magazine column this week, Adam Davidson writes about the challenges of measuring productivity in today’s economy. Here’s an excerpt. Continue reading

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Whitehall Watch is changing

Hi all,

I thought I should give you a quick update. Over the summer Whitehall Watch will be changing.

First of all, Whitehall Watch will slowly become more of a multi-author blog, drawing on our community of “Whitehall Watchers” at Manchester, and, we hope more widely. We will be inviting anyone who shares our interest in Whitehall, and public administration and public management more widely, to send us posts (for now you can send them to policy@manchester.ac.uk but we will have dedicated email shortly). I’ll still be here, blogging away, but hopefully the voices you hear here will become a bit more diverse. Continue reading

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BT: To Infinity and Beyond, or not

We, as a country, are failing dismally to provide a proper broadband infrastructure.  While debate rages around whether or not we’ll have HS2 sometime in the dim and distant future, right here right now we are lagging behind in our 21st century cyber infrastructure.

I suppose I ought to declare an interest. I used to work for BT. As a telephone engineer, from 1979 to 1986. And for part of that time I was a full-time Branch Secretary for Westminster branch of the old POEU (Post Office Engineering Union) – long since merged into the CWU. Continue reading

Posted in Political Economy, Whitehall | 7 Comments

Save the Census – Save Our Stats

FROM: Beyond 2011 Independent Working Group – Save Our Statistics?
This is an appeal by the Beyond 2011 independent working group to those who use official population and social statistics in the UK, particularly those concerned with area-based statistics. We are here referring to the rich range of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics which are currently available from national to census output area levels. The statistical system is currently under scrutiny and review. Key to this review is the search for alternatives to the census of population and housing, a core element of UK statistics held each decade since 1801. The UK’s system of area-based population statistics from national to local levels may be lost unless it is justified loudly and clearly. We are concerned that many users of these statistics are insufficiently aware of the potential changes and their implications and have not been engaged in this debate. Continue reading
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Engaging with Policy: Whitehall, Westminster and the Academy

Many of us who study public policy academically often discuss just what impact our work has – do we influence anything?

With the Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise fast approaching, academics across Britain are busily putting together ‘impact’ statements to show just how much impact they have had. And one crucial area of ‘impact’ is on public policy. Everyone has been thrashing around for metrics.

So it was with great interest that I started playing around with the ‘Who’s Lobbying’ database (after my colleague at Manchester, Alex Waddington, spotted it). Continue reading

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Local Government Strategies in an Age of Austerity

by Colin R. Talbot and Carole L. Talbot[1] University of Manchester

Originally published in a CIPFA/PMPA pamphlet here (April 2011). Some of the data may be slightly dated, but the thrust of the argument remains valid and even more topical as a fresh round of 10% local government cuts in 2015-16 has been announced.

Local government in England is faced with probably the biggest challenges it has had since at least the end of World War II, if not longer. Not only is it facing front-loaded cuts to its income of an unprecedented scale, but the demand for services, especially for the elderly, continue to rise and in many areas the return of mass unemployment, especially amongst young people, threatens new problems. Continue reading

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“Investing in Britain’s Future” Not so much.

I have heard some ludicrous claims by politicians in the past but the claim that this government is launching one of the biggest programmes of public investment in our history is breathtakingly ridiculous. Continue reading

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Ministers and Mandarins : The IPPR’s 2013 Review of the Senior Civil Service: A Commentary

 by Dave Richards and Martin J. Smith[1]

In penning this review of the IPPR’s newly published report on Accountability and Responsiveness in the Senior Civil Service: Lessons from Overseas we’d like to invoke the spirit of Frankie Howard by starting with ‘The Prologue’. Continue reading

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SR2013 and SR2010: “Life is What Happens Whilst You’re Making Plans” (John Lennon)

The Chancellor, we are constantly being told, has stuck solidly to “Plan A” – the spending reductions set out in SR2010. And today’s “Spending Round” was only about 2015-16. Really? Continue reading

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The Politics of Spending Review 2013: The ‘Star Chamber’ Phantom Menace and Turf Wars

(This is the second of a series of comments I’ll be making addressing different aspects of SR2013 over the next few days)

SR 2013 has been agreed, we are told today. And some are claiming it was all settled amicably in the end (see Benedict Brogan at the Telegraph), without even having to convene the so-called “Star Chamber” to bring the last ‘hold-outs’ (Vince Cable, Theresa May and Phillip Hammond) to heal. Continue reading

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The Politics of Spending Review 2013: Why Now, Why at all?

(This is the first of a series of comments I’ll be making addressing different aspects of SR2013 over the next few days)

It is striking that not a single political commentator has even asked the question: why is the Government tearing itself apart over a one-year Spending Review that doesn’t need to happen until next year, if at all. Continue reading

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In Defence of Quangos

This is the written evidence i presented to the PASC back in 2011 on the so-called cull of quangos, setting out why they are an important part of any democratic state:


why arms-length bodies are a vital part of our democratic system of public administration and what should be done to organise them better. Continue reading

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