Why aren’t home office civil servants in the dock along with G4S?

by Atul Hatwal

At midday today Nick Buckles, chief executive of G4S will begin some of the most uncomfortable minutes of his life.

His questioning by MPs on the home affairs select committee will lead the news bulletins. The management double talk, where simple failure becomes “complex human resource supply chain capacity challenges” or some similar corporate confection, will be boringly familiar.

Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, Bob Diamond, and now, Nick Buckles; a nation’s heads will shake in bewilderment across the country, as the news plays out.

But, for all the justified anger and rolled eyeballs at yet another example of egregious corporate malfeasance, something will be missing from proceedings.

Buckles’ pain and squirming will satiate some of the desire for public retribution yet this disaster, as with all government procurement catastrophes, was not the sole responsibility of the private sector.

This contract was allowed to careen horrendously off the rails by civil servants.

In a past life I spent years working projects like this when they used to be called public private partnerships. For all the anger that is directed at the private sector, in one sense, the old title of these projects was right.

They are partnerships.

For every bad contractor spectacularly failing to deliver, there will inevitably have been shoddy, amateurish management by the civil servants running the contract. Never one without the other.

The numbers of checks, committee approvals and monitoring reports that need to be completed in any public contract mean that it should be impossible for something like the G4S scandal to suddenly erupt across our TV screens.

Should be.

At each turn, G4S will undoubtedly have failed to meet the required standard but a brigade of home office civil servants will have been sufficiently incompetent not to notice or do anything about it if they did.

The civil servants will have followed each step in their PRINCE2 project management manuals without understanding the meaning of the words or how to actually manage the supplier.

There’s a small chance that Nick Buckles will lose his job. Good. But what about the ranking civil servant who has presided over this disaster? Will a summary redundancy beckon? Hardly. At worst, there will be a transfer to another department without any loss in pay or status.

Part of my old job involved sitting across the table from civil servants, negotiating on what was to be delivered in these contracts. When doing this, two points were always clear.

First, whoever was the lead civil servant, we knew they would not be there to see the contract through to delivery. As with all moderately senior civil servants, they would move on after a couple of years, in a Pythoneque turn to do something completely different. Such is the jack-of-all-trades ethos of the civil service that breeds a deep lack of personal accountability.

Second, if the contract went wrong and all the outputs weren’t delivered, we knew the civil service project managers would pay no substantive penalty either in terms of their job or take-home pay. In a very real, material sense, it all mattered less to them.

Yes G4S have failed on a horrendous scale. Yes Nick Buckles deserves all the opprobrium that is heaped on him. But, somewhere in the home office, are senior and middle ranking civil servants who are equally culpable.

Civil servants who will be busy tutting and shaking their heads at how dreadfully G4S deceived them, but who will know deep down, that they were the ones who let G4S get away with it. Who didn’t ask the difficult questions or bother to get out of the office to actually visit the training centres where the phantom army of guards was allegedly being trained.

Accountability is one way to describe what’s needed. Fear of being found out is another. Either way, until civil servants viscerally feel this sensation, and know that their actions will have real personal consequences, this type of contractual disaster will remain a fixture of select committee hearings long into the future, regardless of the party in government.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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4 Responses to “Why aren’t home office civil servants in the dock along with G4S?”

  1. Don Gately says:

    I think the situation’s even worse than you describe. It’s not just the procurement process but the whole commissioning cycle. Yes there’s little accountability when it comes to buying decisions and contract management but often service specifications are lousy to start with

    I work for a charity and we’re having to deal with a MoJ contractor (a national charity rather than the baby eating private sector) with little local knowledge who has just parachuted into our area and is trying to deliver a service no one wants – not just a waste of money but they’re creating confusion amongst a range of partners as to how charities operate and creating unrealisable expectations. In 2 years the contract will finish and they’ll be gone and we’ll pick up the pieces. The service they’re delivering isn’t based on local need but ticks ministerial boxes. Whilst civil servants can undertake the processes incompetently they’re often trying to meet unreasonable political demands (we were as bad in govt as the coalition are at denying reality as well)

    the worst case of this is the work programme – the failure isn’t just down to bad private sector primes or procurement decusions but the dodgy data from the DWP that underpinned their business models alongside the poor commissioning from civil servants and unrealistic pricing of the service. As much as primes aren’t up to the job they’ve not had the referrals from the DWP they expected and projections of job creation were over optimistic or failed to take account the uneven distribution of job creation where it has occured in the economy.

    You’re right that it’s too easy to blame the contractors (which is why govt likes to contract out services) but the failings of the civil service are not just down to issues of capability but are inevitable when politicians make unrealistic demands to which the civil service is not empowered to say “no” to – and when it does often does for the wrong reasons.

    It would also be interesting to look at any proposed solutions to this situation – what you suggest would require some contractual reform within the civil service and a different relationship between parliament and civil servants. The labour movement may struggle to gain some consensus on that issue.

  2. swatantra says:

    Don is right the fault realy klies with their political masters who should rightly carry the can for any botch ups. Civil Servants are only following basic instructions and guidelines given to them. Its only when they step outside their set boundaries that they are liable for mistakes made using their own initiatives. Then they should carry the can. But there again its a matter for the Civil Service to deal with, and they are usually moved on or disciplined or dismissed, but its usually kept quiet.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    The descriptions by both Atul and Don are symptomatic of the problems inherent within a centralised bureaucracy; they are also symptomatic of a system where oversight is reduced to mere administration. Unfortunately we are probably going to see more of this sort of thing as specialist local governance is being further eroded. We have already lost local authority municipal engineers yet local authorities are now responsible for flood defence in addition to highways management; local education authorities will eventually lose their support staff as more schools are centrally mandated and hospital trusts will be broken up and merged into conglomerates that are administered from afar.
    This issue highlights the importance and necessity of strong governance and your description of the problem highlights the importance of accountability and specialist knowledge to be retained within local authorities.

  4. Tannere says:

    Good governace is an ideal rarely achieved even within democratic governments, Orwell expressed that so well. This gross failure is largely due to inept and self-seeking bureaucrats manoeuvering the government machine for their own benifit. Civil servants lack of accountability means they fail to meet the proper needs of society.
    Checks and balances and proper processes are not followed through; rules and regulations having been purposely abandoned in order to facilitate fraud, theft – unearned bonuses etc – neglect and self-serving cronyism.
    This ‘couldnt give a damn’ approach re good governance is the cancer at the heart of the Whitehall machine, and can be seen across all departments.
    Those of us who care must keep plodding on – as the many ‘couldnt give a damn MPs come over more as a PR cover-up unit for inept officialdom.

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