I had a useful meeting at the DCMS yesterday. We discussed their newly published Business Plan. “It’s very interesting” I said, which it is, as much for what’s not in it, as for what is. “Really?” said my meeting mate, with a charmingly dry smile.
“What’s behind it?” I asked, “what’s in the documents you haven’t published?”
No, she said, this is it. We’re concentrating on doing a few things very well. And I admit to being surprised by this. If you have looked at the business plan, you’ll know it’s short and dominated by a very limited number of priorities, the sexiest of which is delivering a successful Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Pretty much everything else is pragmatic and infrastructural, for example, sorting out the anomalies around Intellectual Property law, which has not yet caught up with the digital age.
To be blunt, it’s prosaic and lacking in inspiration. The explanation is that the DCMS will be losing 50% of its staff after 2012, going from 500 people to 250. This will put an even greater reliance on the NDPBs who deliver so much of the DCMS programme, like Arts Council England, Skillset and CCE, who themselves are going to be extraordinarily stretched. Should Mr Hunt suddenly get some bright ideas that don’t cost too much (surely a requirement of being Secretary of State?) there is a real possibility that the staff simply won’t be there to implement anything new.
New Labour got around this problem – being seen to shrink the civil service while still attempting to deliver ambitious projects – by hiring large numbers of consultants to fill the gaps. Reportedly, ministers would go into meetings and ask “who are the staff and who are consultants?” as their first question. Somehow I don’t think the Tories will be able to slip that trick by a vigilant press.
Right now, this punitive self destruction appears to fit with the dull grey zeitgeist, this faux 1940s “austerity” that the Tories are hanging their ideology on. But in a couple of years time – post Royal Wedding, post Olympics, post several more mass demonstrations – it will look like a failure of imagination, and an uninspired and uninspiring Government. I can’t be the only person who thinks this, surely?
I wonder if we are all – civil servants, economists, commentators and private sector alike – secretly wondering if the full severity of cuts will actually take place? 2012 and beyond still seems like a faraway land; and as they say, a week is a long time in politics. Perhaps there will be enough of an economic revival to enable a partial row back from the severity and sheer dullness of what is currently proposed?
Who knows? There are informed expert voices both for and against. But according to The Observer last Sunday, Government doesn’t know either. In The Secret Diary of a Civil Servant, the civil servant said: “Reforms of welfare and housing benefits, criminal justice, education, the NHS and the armed forces are driven by a bizarre mixture of financial necessity, ideology, personal crusades, fairness and efficiency”.
Doesn’t sound like coherent strategy to me. It is worrying that such a ragbag of motivations is driving so much radical and difficult to reverse change in our public structures. Yes, I know that somehow as nations we survived the extremes of Thatcher, Reagan and two Bushes, but on a micro-basis, we are still living with the impact of their harsh and divisive policies on individuals, families and society as we experience it. If we are in for a repeat performance, I really fear for our collective future.