Scholarship v. fantasy


David Moss


March 2009


Two articles for you to consider:

1. Think-tank urges Whitehall shake-up:

The independence of the civil service has “become an excuse for zero accountability”, finds a report.

A study by Reform noted that while senior bankers have been called to account, there had been much less scrutiny of the mandarins who failed to deliver the “effective administration of Britain”.

It added that while ministers are accountable to the electorate, civil servants “are an invisible and unaccountable group, all but immune to scrutiny”.

2. Statistics show this watchdog is prepared to bare its teeth:

Concern about declining public trust in government in general – and official statistics in particular – led ministers, with all-party support, to set up an independent watchdog in the UK Statistics Authority [chaired by Sir Michael Scholar], with a tough new code of practice for all public bodies producing any kind of official figures ...

“One of the reasons I took this job is that having good statistics is like having clean water and clean air. It’s the fundamental material that we depend on for an honest political debate”, [says Sir Michael] ...

One innovation is a national statistics publication hub website, on which all the new statistical releases are posted every day. “For the first time it completely separates the statistics from comment on them ...

The new rule that data cannot be released to the media or ministers more than 24 hours before publication is also having an effect ...

Does what is perceived as the selective release of the most favourable figures into friendly ears contribute to public distrust?

“I think it does,” Sir Michael replies. “I personally think it’s a form of corruption” ...

“… what should happen is that political debate takes place on the basis of a clean set of statistics, produced without political interference by professionals who have a clear set of values as regards the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of what they are doing” ...

Often, we think that the independence of the civil service in the UK is a good thing. On this occasion, however, the Reform report apparently accuses the civil service of being independent of accountability.

There is some evidence that Reform are right. The Identity & Passport Service (IPS), for example, managed to mislead the public in at least 10 ways in a single press release on 29 January 2009. Some statements made in that press release do not correspond to the facts and there is no statement in the press release of some relevant facts which should be brought to the public’s attention. IPS do not respond to repeated notification of these errors and omissions. Instead, they simply rehearse their script. They are in that sense unaccountable.

The virtue of an independent civil service is meant to be that they will tell politicians the truth, they will not be diverted from giving impartial advice by any other considerations. That would be a good idea.

Sir Michael Scholar seems to be taking practical steps to make that idea a reality. He seems to be the only antidote on offer for the disease of IPS. Let us hope that he gets help and that he succeeds.


10 March 2009: Keith Joseph’s lesson to today’s political pygmies:

The great Guardian editor C.P. Scott famously noted: ‘facts are sacred, comment is free.’ The great thing that has changed in British public life since C.P. Scott shut up shop is that facts are no longer sacred. This novel state of affairs calls into question the very possibility of democracy, which depends on uncontested facts around which political opponents can then enter a well-informed public debate.

The lack of respect for fact has led to an entirely new kind of politics. Something really interesting has taken place in Britain. We have abandoned the idea that there is an independent reality which is out there and subject to independent verification — and adopted instead a new political epistemology. The emphasis of argument has moved from truths that can be proven to narratives that can be constructed. This new postmodern political settlement is formally recognised by the ruling elite. Peter Mandelson, inventor of the new politics, speaks of the need to ‘create the truth’.


12 March 2009: Stats should be ‘boring’: Sir Gus:

“I want [the ONS] to be boring, to put out the plain facts, and nothing but the facts, and on clear, predictable deadlines,” he said. It would then be for politicians and government press officers to interpret the figures, he added.

Sir Gus is apparently not convinced by Sir Michael’s appeal to reality. The Home Office should presumably be allowed to continue to spin the knife crime figures. And how dare the ONS tell the truth about the employment figures?

Sir Gus also gave his view on a recent report by think tank Reform that argued that top civil servants should be appointed by political leaders (see p7).

The cabinet secretary branded the proposition “absolute madness” and described how Number 10 is currently struggling to liaise with the US Treasury department over April’s London G20 meeting.

It is always amusing to poke fun at the Americans and their juvenile practice of political appointments. We don’t need their military protection and the economy can recover perfectly well without their assistance thank you very much. So 10 out of 10 for diplomacy, Sir Gus, but you don’t seem to have addressed the question of accountability. That’s what the Reform report is about, apparently, and you have not taken the opportunity to make your views on the matter clear.

So that’s two omissions in one statement – not what we expect from a boringly predictable, accountable and confidence-inspiring civil service.