I have just been browsing the Guardian Computing debate last week on “Can problems with the PSN be overcome?” and was struck by one of the comments – describing how a local authority had to separate its PSN plans from its bid for BDUK funding and now had two projects.
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I commend the debate as a good snap-shot of current discussions, including a reminder that PSN has evolved from “Public Sector Network” to “Public Service Network” without the implications of that change being thought through. The statements on security have similarly evolved without being linked to debate on changing security architectures to enable the deperimeterised defences against zero-day attacks that are now essential for any organisation that is serious about the security of the data it holds, whether on itself, its customers or its staff.
I have been critical of BDUK and DCMS for wasting public money by using expensive consultants, with little or no background in communications or public sector procurement, to produce and attempt to enforce idiosyncratic procurement frameworks which get in the way of drawing in funding from other sources. But DCMS is by no means the only department which is paying consultants to learn, very expensively and at taxpayers expense, what is different about the public sector, let alone about the industries, technologies and application(s) on which they have been asked to advise.
So why is that problem so widespread?
and more interestingly,
Why have the consequences become so much more obvious over the past year?
The Independent put its finger on part (but only part) of the answers in its article “Goodbye Minister“. It is not just those at the top of the Civil Service who have chosen to take the retirement option rather than stay to help tackle the challenge of change.
Across much of Whitehall we can see management consultants on premium day-rates, with no background knowledge of the problems they have been retained to look at, doing what would, before the last Conservative government, have been done by young civil servants – albeit with equally little knowledge. The main difference is that the latter were not expected to be expert and their superiors were usually much more cautious about trying to impose their recommendations (if any) for micro-managed solutions on local government or on the nationalised industries and public corporations of the day.
The last Labour government could not reverse the post 1979 denationalisation programme but did set about reimposing a culture of top-down centralised planning. However, it did not trust Civil Servants who had spent the previous decade outsourcing delivery and reducing central control. It therefore brought in management consultancies, some of which had actually been blacklisted by the previous government for malpractice, to do the job.
We are now living with the consequences.
When I blogged on the Big Information Society I left out my (93 year-old) mother’s definition. “The last government spend all the money and mortgaged the future so we’re on our own, just like when I was young.” My father was civil servant with, at one time, responsibility for “serious” contingency planning. He timed his retirement for optimum pension rights and ensured my mother would be well supported after his death. He also had strong views on his duties as “a servant of the Crown” which he did NOT regard as synonymous with the wishes of the current minister. Just as well that he retired before the infamous “Armstrong Doctrine” allowed Civil Servants to claim the Nuremburg Defence.
After Ted Heath called his “who runs Britain?” election and was told “Not You”, one of Harold Wilson’s first actions was to call for the civil contingencies plans to be overhauled in case he had to take on the miners. My father was almost the only Assistant Secretary with experience of post-war, peace-time food rationing. He was given a junior Treasury Minister’s office and put in charge of part of the exercise. A couple of the younger members of his team were still in post when I was working on Y2K and similar exercises had to be done. Today CPNI is making heavy weather of updating the work done for Y2K because that kind of institutional memory has been largely lost. In some cases, as with the British Rail preventive maintenance records, that “memory” was actively destroyed in processes akin to the Maoist cultural revolution, with integrated operations asunder (and their databases deleted) by consultants,lawyers and regulators implementing top down policies, with no understanding of the consequences of their actions.
Rebuilding trust in the competance of a professional Civil Service will take time. Until then …
Who is trying to join up the policies?
Who would you trust to do so?
My planned contribution includes seeking to recruit retired civil servants into the Conservative Technology Forum to work alongside application (not just technology) experts and ambitious young policy wonks – in the hope that the best of them will then be poached by Cabinet Office and others as policy advisors. Volunteers should contact me via either the CTF linked in group or the website. I do now have the codes to update the latter. Now I need to make the time !!