This week, Chris Cook in the FT (on blackberry so no link) revealed that some Department for Education Special Advisers were using personal email accounts to organise various bits of their work. As with the revelation that some officials had been encouraging some schools to apply for Academy status, my response is largely, so what?
Actually it’s more than that. Firstly, in reality, even I have several email accounts and they are impossible to all link up into one place. Secondly and more substantively, if it’s true that the conversations were about Conference plans they theoretically shouldn’t have been on departmental email accounts anyway. But thirdly – and this is the most important point for me – it is ridiculous that there is this division between government and political work.
What departments do is, by definition, political. They are trying to enact their policies, giving information, helping their various interested parties to make choices, encouraging the success of their ministers. Even something as straightforward as arranging for some filming to be done for a conference video is, in part, about promoting the government’s policies.
I have argued before that there isn’t enough political bottom in today’s government. Most SpAds I know spend a majority of their time dealing with the day to day demands of the media and so don’t have enough time to do the longer-term political job they are supposed to do. They spend vast amounts of time trying to keep on top of huge numbers of cc-ed emails from officials. And – of course – they are a small number in relation to the size of the civil service.
Whether or not you agree with the argument that the civil service as a body is an active enemy of change (on balance, I probably don’t. I suspect the real reason for much of the perceived reluctance to change is partly that change in big organisations is always difficult, partly that people often feel that they’ve seen these demands before and they ‘know’ that they won’t work), it’s not a sustainable way for any government to operate.
So is it time for us to reassess the way government works? Is it time to admit, as is the case, that pretty much everything that our elected representatives do to discuss, promote and enact their policies IS political and see if there’s a better way to make change happen? Is it time for the full spectrum (the top layers anyway) of government to be politically appointed?