*** Update ***
I have had my attention drawn to some documents released by the Department for Communities and Local Government at the What do they know? website. These include a presentation to the Acting Permanent Secretary about the abolition of the Audit Commission which took place on 23 July. That was three weeks before the news was shared with the Audit Commission and its staff. Slide 10 of the presentation refers to ‘engaging positively’ with the Commission and its staff. My correspondent wonders what non-positive engagement would look like.
Elsewhere while we’re talking about Quangos I think we should all spare a thought tonight for the employees and families of those organisations who will hear tomorrow from the Cabinet Office if they will be getting the chop too. It’s a horrible experience. Best wishes to each and every one of you.
PS Here’s the original post from this morning with the mad formatting and spelling corrected. Normal service now resumed.
I was in and out of the car a lot yesterday. Multitasking. Working through my list of ‘before you go tasks’ and Operation ‘Find a Job’.
It was just after I got back into the car, Doubledecker in one hand and pasty clenched in my teeth that I heard someone say:
‘Well next week’s comprehensive spending review means the long Phoney War of what will and won’t be cut is almost over.’
I didn’t catch who had said it as I was considering how to get the pasty off the inside of my windscreen. Phoney War?
Almost all public sector organisations I know have been planning strategically and, often, in much detail for next week’s CSR announcements for well over a year. We have known broadly what was coming and much painful action has already been taken.
None of that – including my own imminent redundancy – feels at all ‘phoney’.
In fact the only ‘phoney’ stuff I have seen over recent months is how the political parties conducted themselves in the election campaign. (Here comes the ‘this isn’t a political blog’ disclaimer.) This isn’t a party political point. Every political leader I heard talked in such high abstractions that it was only possible to be certain that they believed in motherhood, apple-pie, world peace and the pursuit of happiness. Although to be fair I’m not sure the previous PM was certain about the last one of those aims.
To those of us in the trenches of the public sector, cowering in the shell-holes of unemployment No Man’s Land what’s going on is horribly, horribly real.
I don’t like using combat imagery to describe what’s going on. My grandpa arrived in France in August 1914 with the BEF so it seems a little disrespectful. But our Prime Minister’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ shtick at his party conference has been floating around in my consciousness since I heard it. So I am hopping on a narrative bandwagon that’s already left the stable block.
For some though flippancy seems to be a default mode.
I caught a story in the Telegraph’s blog the other evening that had my jaw smacking the table. For a while there’s been rumours knocking around of a code word operation in the Department of Communities and Local Government. Operation ‘Victoria Sponge’.
Many of us have been wondering what all this is about. It’s even been the subject of FoI requests. Well the Telegraph, presumably authorised, has blown the gaff. It turns out the team around the Secretary of State decided early on the Audit Commission was a Quango it wanted rid off. But rather than doing the boring stuff you do around public policy development, consultation, option appraisal – that sort of stuff – the team decided to cloak their designs in secrecy.
So Victoria Sponge was baked.
The Telegraph claims that every reference to the Audit Commission in the CLG’s policy making machinery was exchanged for Victoria Sponge. My, how they laughed.
I repeat the story because I think it tells us PBI (poor bloody infantry) of the public sector a lot about our political masters’ mind-sets. Firstly, it’s deeply disrespectful. No great surprise there I suppose. Secondly, this is policy making from a cheap spy novel – a plot hatched by persons unknown for reasons unclear. Thirdly, the well-being of public sector employees comes a poor second to ensuring that politicians can get a good press.
Since reading the Telegraph story I’ve been puzzling about the need for this secrecy. Looking back over how the story broke at the time I can only infer that this decision was CLG’s very own weapon of mass destruction. Designed in secret for detonation for maximum effect in the dog days of August when it would have no serous news competition. Shocking and aweing the rest of the public sector into brutalised compliance.
I can understand and appreciate the cleverness of the politics here but it hardly feels like the ‘we’re all in this together’ policy approach the government seems keen on. And, to be fair it appears that there’s anxiety among some politicians about this and the other ‘bonfire of the quangos’ stuff that I have blogged about before.
But, to return to my original point, many thousands of public servants are not in any phony war despite what some bits of the media would have you believe. The comments from colleagues on this blog and elsewhere bear this out. The only folks for whom any of this is now at all phoney appears to me to be the political classes who mistake posturing and jockeying for personal advantage for statesmanship. And who confuse making an announcement with achievement.
I don’t know how many I may be speaking for here but I’m sceptical the mantra of ‘tough decisions’ is really understood by national decision makers. Nor will it be until the unavoidable public policy evils of the aggressive cuts programme become obvious. Unless, of course, they get the secret codeword treatment too. Operation Baloney sounds about right.