Ever since the days of Yes, Minister, civil servants have been a soft target. "Are there really 516,000 of them? All funded by taxpayers? Impossible to fire? Princely state pensions? Gongs for just turning up each morning? And what, pray, do these pampered poltroons contribute?" Very little, according to Letwin. One mandarin has the role of horse tsar. You couldn't make it up. Unless you're in local government, that is, where they have "rolling shelter move-on officers", and "child pedestrian skills training co-ordinators". No wonder both parties feel on safe political ground in sharpening the axe. Who'd strike to save a horse tsar?
It's not just the silly job titles. Even serious branches of Whitehall are under scrutiny. For example, construction's civil servants have struggled to make an impact since they joined the DTI, which might explain the talk of expanding their remit to cover facilities management. Local authority planners have been in the firing line even longer. To illustrate their current state of powerlessness, read the tale of what happened when Southwark's officers tried to back plans for a 32-storey block of Thames-side flats (pages 40-44).
Why are the bureaucrats floundering? Money, in the case of planners. In an environment of low wages and scant resources, it's easy for planning consultants to skim off the talent, leaving a national shortfall of 4000 professionals. In response, John Prescott is offering an extra £350m to boost recruitment. Whitehall has lost some of its best brains to the business world too, particularly since the PFI; hence the talk of £300,000 salaries for top civil servants and Gershon's idea of creating a purchasing agency, run – one imagines – on private sector lines, with pay to match.
Gershon's proposal also highlights another reason for the weakness of our bureaucracies. The politicians who are now questioning their contribution have consistently misused them. Civil servants are natural policymakers, because, in general, they are very bright. Yet managerialist governments have tried to turn them into machines for hitting targets and given the policy role to private political advisers of the Ed Balls type. New Zealand, by contrast, has the kind of lean civil service the main parties want, but its function is strictly policy-orientated.
It's the same in local authorities, where the power of planners to shape policy is undermined by institutionalised nimbyism on one hand – witness Barratt's experience in Bromley (page 44) – and Prescott's dissipation of power on the other. Whither professional planning in the age of RDAs, UDCs and national housing quotas? Prescott may, with some justification, have lost faith in council planners. But unless his government reforms the system, rather than circumventing it, planning will remain a world where nothing works. And planning departments, like parts of Whitehall, will become a world where nobody wants to work.
Adrian Barrick, editor