What should we make of the increasing rate of government scandals ?

Scandals. Lots of them.

The sub-postmaster scandal. The contaminated blood scandal. The DWP carer scandal. The continuing Windrush scandal, The Grenfell prosecutions scandal. The HS2 costs debacle.

There are others not so much in the headlines.

The scandal of unused border facilities post-Brexit. The long list of NHS IT scandals. The TFL and rail contract scandals. Regulation of Thames Water. The Crown Court backlog scandal. The GP appointments and finances scandal. There are dozens more; most the public doesn’t get to hear about..

But the general public is the victim, and the general public knows it.

There is also an extensive list of decades-long astonishing military procurement scandals, that have weakened our defences; Scout/Ajax, al-Yamamah, Warrior CSP, £8bn aircraft carrier problems, and the £100bn+ Dreadnought submarines. Billions and billions wasted. When money is short.

Any scan through the NAO and Public Accounts Committee archives show not only an accelerated rate of major government scandals, but that the public harm from them is increasing.

Are all the problems scandal-specific or is there something wider underlying the problems ?

Here’s an analogy. Your football team goes a whole season without a win. The supposed causes are all match-specific; that missed penalty, your player wrongly sent off, the substitution mistake, the goalkeeper injured… Wouldn’t you find it odd if deeper, season-wide issues are never raised ? Well, that’s where we are in the UK with government scandals.

The public knows that the scandals will continue, regardless of the Party in power. Why ? Because no individual ever seems seems to have ‘done anything wrong’. There may be prosecutions over Grenfell … but starting in 2037, when there will be even more ‘I cannot quite recall’ responses than usual.

Is the answer more state PR to ‘enhance public confidence in government’ ? Or is it to address the underlying problems in the first place ?

There are general problems across the governmental system. And there are general remedies that can address the underlying flaws. But they require much effort.

A succession of government enquiries and reports suggest a few symptomatic curiosities:

* Senior appointees often seem to be paid vast sums to give non-answers to questions, to be absurdly defensive at all times, and to protect their subordinates and their lucrative links with sub-contractors.
* Senior people in governmental organisations seem unconcerned by what the public might call ‘beneficial end-results’
* The qualifications and experience apparently required for senior roles, even those managing large organisations, seems mystifying
* Self-regulation and regulatory capture is the norm. Consequently, the relationship with external institutions and ‘customers’ seems to be defined by the adage ‘to police not to serve’.
* Problem-solving and managing for the long term seem now to be considered naive and child-like by those ‘in the circle’
* The managers of arms-length governmental bodies and close contractors, tend to stay in post for a decade or more, whilst the civil servants overseeing them tend to stay in post only for a short time
* Almost all government subcontractors seem to be hired on detailed terms laughably favourable for themselve. Odd.
* Senior governmental folk never admit to reading documents, and never admit to not reading documents. The former might lead to accountability, and the latter, accusations of neglectfulness. So they settle on the limbo of ‘skim reading’ or ‘reading partially’ to avoid either. Frequently, if pressed, they ‘cannot recall’ which bits they have read and which bits they didn’t. Funny that.

The hard work required to address the deeper problems, of which the above are symptoms, revolves around major reforms to accountability, transparency, commercial law, government accounting, civil service law and secrecy, procurement/contracting, democratic systems, commercial confidentiality, state fiscal centralisation, competition rules, regulatory quality criteria, institutional supervision, and human resources/organisational practices.

It might be put a better way; not ‘legislative reform’, but a political drive to remove the protections that enable these scandals, and that permit the cruelty which often accompanies them.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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  • Ex-LD Leeds 26th May '24 - 6:38pm

    A simple answer – ‘Be liberal’

    To expand – challenge sources of power and the more power there is the more it should be challenged. It doesn’t matter *where* the source of that power is be it business, government, the health authorities, police, EU, Trade Unions where there is the ability to exercise power over people’s lives there should be an inherent scepticism of liberals that this is being use to enhance freedoms (both freedom from and freedom to).

    That starts with very strong powers of access to information and to scrutise. But it also needs politicians to not relent on challenging things both in power and outside – not to go over old ground but institutional capture in the coalition was very rapid and one of the more depressing features.

    Now if you want something that won’t get talked about in the next 6 weeks….. (because everyone wants to inheirit the system not to change it)

  • The scandals you mention are serious and need to be addressed, but I’m not convinced that they reflect anything getting worse in the long run with Government. More likely to do with, thanks to the Internet and greater scrutiny, we today tend to hold the Government to higher standards.

    A couple of examples to illustrate that:

    The contaminated blood scandal you cite actually dates from the 1970s/80s so is not evidence of the rate of scandals increasing. It’s just that we are finally today trying to resolve it.

    Windrush was awful, but there was arguably a similar – and even worse one – in the 1940s when the Labour Government forcibly deported over 1300 Chinese from Liverpool, in some cases leaving their British wives having no idea why their husbands had disappeared. Yet at the time practically no-one in politics batted an eyelid about it. That’s an example of our standards getting better.

    Similarly, the HS2 cost overrun has parallels: The abandoned Advanced Passenger Train of the 1980s, British Rail building lots of steam locomotives at a time when we already knew that steam was obsolete – and then building a very expensive railway flyover in Bletchley that was basically never used (and finally got torn down a couple of years ago to make way for East-West Rail). These again are examples not of Government getting worse but of our awareness of issues getting better.

  • Jenny Barnes 27th May '24 - 9:16am

    I’ve been watching “dopesick” on the BBC I-player. Good drama, and it illuminates many of these issues. Major corporate (allegedly) corrupts a government regulatory agency to sell addictive opiods as non-addictive, makes shedloads of money at the cost of people being addicted, social breakdown, crime etc etc. Apparently the person who approved the drug Oxycontin as non-addictive moved shortly after to the a job in the company making it.
    I have some naive hope that a potential Keir Starmer government will not be as corrupt as the current shower. How much did they spend on Test & Trace?

  • Laurence Cox 27th May '24 - 10:28am

    The book “Bad Buying” by Peter Smith (ISBN 978-0-241-43459-8) published in 2020 is a compendium of bad procurement decisions in business as well as in government.

    Before the General Election was announced I was intending to write a review of it for LDN because it should be compulsory reading for all politicians.

  • David Garlick 27th May '24 - 10:57am

    The ‘elephant ‘ scandal waiting in the wings is of course the mounting climate catastrophe. For decades Government has had all the relevant information of what is happening and has failed to act appropriately. The damage that will befall the nation will be beyond any affordable compensation scheme. What then?

  • Peter Davies 27th May '24 - 1:52pm

    A key factor in poor outsourcing contracts is that the vendor understands the issues far better than the client. If you are outsourcing a big area of work, you need at least one in-house contract manager who understands the job as well as anyone at the contractor. The contract needs to include transparency. In the case of a government contract it is reasonable to insist that once the contract has been signed, the government monitors are within the fence of commercial confidentiality.

    The problem has existed in IT contracts as long as commercial computers have existed but the expertise gap in all areas of outsourcing has widened as the idea of government directly employing experts has become almost unthinkable.

  • Peter Hirst 27th May '24 - 3:35pm

    Scandals are part of our life but we can minimise their effect. One way is to detect them earlier through better transparency and accountability. We have endured awful role models for this last decade and the next government must reward public service more. Better rewarding of whistle blowers would also help. They should be awarded honours.

  • David Allen 27th May '24 - 5:50pm

    Bullies, group-thinkers and cronies tend to win the senior management game in any organisation. Notionally high priciples, as in charities, tend to protect bad management by making it easy to portray challengers as enemies. Government, and monopolistic organisations, can similarly create an unchallengeable “consensus” which protects a bad status quo. Things can sometimes be better in commercial organisations facing genuine competition, because people rightly fear, and take action against, bad leaders and bad policies which risk commercial failure. But that doesn’t apply to governments or civil servants.

    Why don’t political parties recognise the needs for transparency and accountability, as Peter Hirst and others have rightly highlighted? Because “Yes Minister” is what works. Politicians must let civil servants get away with their mistakes and failures – Because in return, civil servants will help to cover up the mistakes that politicians make.

    Blair was brave enough to bring in freedom of information. He later admitted that he had made an idealistic mistake, when FOI was used to discredit him.

    So politicians of all parties will pretend to seek transparency, but avoid it in reality. The public need to understand that, and fight it.

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