There is a recursiveness to Whitehall’s examinations of its own shortcomings. The construction and analysis of arguments, the slight distancing from the subject matter at hand, the elegant and occasionally self-deprecating prose, the focus on the quantity of delivery rather than the quality of service can all be deployed in looking at how government operates as well as at what it does and should do. And those are powerful tools, deployed by smart and thoughtful people, so real insight can be expected to come from them.
Jonathan Slater’s paper is very much of this genre. It is clear about the problems and about how those problems have persisted despite attempts to solve them. It is clear about examples of where better ways of doing things at the very least point to some hope of improvement. But at the same time it is oddly disengaged. Slater draws heavily on hs experience, on which he is thoughtful and illuminating, he has clear ideas about how things could be improved, and can point to clear evidence of using his leadership of the Department for Education to test and develop some of those ideas. But he is now an observer, not a player. It is hard for the reader not to wonder what stopped apparently good ideas from getting the traction they deserved, but while the point is acknowledged, it is not much developed:
The good news is that civil servants responded with genuine enthusiasm to my call to put “the user” at the heart of their work, however hard it might appear, although we only made limited progress.
To some extent that may be because DfE is not a good example of the kind of department Slater wants to see, as its policy and operational responsibilities do not sit comfortably together. I remember hearing Slater talk frustratedly about having to spend his – and minsters’ time – on decisions about the replacement of individual schools’ boilers – decisions which it is quite absurd to be taking in that way and at that level. But the much bigger and much more general question remains. And interestingly I can best express it in the same words I used to sum up King and Crewe’s The Blunders of our Governments. (published in 2013, but still essential reading):
We know what goes wrong. We know many of the factors which result in things going wrong. But we don’t why, knowing those things, it has proved so hard to break the cycle.
But this is still a paper well worth reading by someone whose record of doing this for real deserves great respect. The Policy Institute has also recorded a discussion of the paper, with Gus O’Donnell, Justine Greening and Bobby Duffy, as well as Jonathan Slater himself. Andrew Greenway has a good twitter thread reflecting on the paper from a slightly different angle.