Sunday thoughts: Do we need to value bureaucracy and support services more highly?
Schools Week reported earlier this week that civil servants in DfE are sitting in corridors and communal areas, as the result of a “get back to the office” drive conflicts with the steady reduction of desk spaces in central government offices. Meanwhile, the government announced that it wants to cut 91,000 civil service roles to save money and drive greater efficiency.
A friend writes movingly about watching her highly trained and highly paid oncologist typing out his own case notes and organising his own diary because his hospital trust has cut back on administrators.
And the FT writes about whether universities are suffering from “management bloat”, with a proponent of the charge being one Baroness Wolf, higher education adviser to the Prime Minister.
What all of these examples have in common is an illustration of the lack of understanding of the shape and size of a bureaucracy which we want within public services, and the state as a whole.
It’s a regular clarion call of governments of all colours to reduce red tape and management. Bureaucrats — “highly paid”, naturally, and often “pushing pens” or “paper” — have no natural friends. And of course, given that everyone in the public sector is ultimately paid for by tax income from the private sector, it’s perfectly reasonable to try and keep the costs down, and prioritise spending on public services towards front line staff.
But the suggestion of 91,000 cuts is another example of a potentially sensible plan, misguidedly implemented. The number comes from a desire to shrink Whitehall back to 2016 levels. But there is no prima facie reason why 2016 is the right baseline (did we have a magically efficient state that year?) And of course since 2016 we have exited the EU, and the central British state now assumes a far greater level of responsibility than in 2016 - on border control, on movement of plants and livestock, and on customs and taxation, to name but three.
And as the NHS example above shows, cutting numbers without a clear plan of reducing workload doesn’t reduce costs, it reduces efficiency. For want of a £25k administrator, a surgeon earning several times that is spending more time out of theatre, and more time at a desk.
Paradoxically, the blunt reduction target has come about precisely because there is a lack of vision from the Johnson government of what the state is for. Do we want to drive regional equality, redirect some element of spending and manpower, and probably see an increase in some local government? Do we want to specialise in key areas of policy as a country, which probably means some larger departments than now and some smaller ones? Do we want a low tax and small state environment — a Singapore on Thames — which probably does mean an overall shrinkage? Do we want an activist state with greater onshoring, an expansion of the welfare state for older people, and a modern 21st centrist nationalism — which probably means a large state in some elements of healthcare, security, policing, and business support? I don’t know. But I don’t think anyone else does either. (For what it’s worth, on OECD data, the UK spends well above the OECD average on front line staff as a proportion of K-12 education spending, about in line with the OECD average for tertiary educarion, and apparently less than half the OECD average on management in healthcare.)
Over the longer term, bureaucracy in public services has grown as public systems have become more complex, and in response to a more mature social and economic environment. In country after country, data shows a growing tax base and emerging middle class followed by an expansion of state spending, as citizens co-create a modern state with greater level of social and economic protections.
And as organisms within public sector grow, so too do the structures around them. The FT piece on management bloat, and the Wolf thesis, complains about the growth of non academics in universities. But a modern university is a multi hundred million pound organisation with a staff of thousands and hundreds of buildings. With all due respect to the academics I know, I wouldn’t trust any of them to successfully manage those institutions. Of course there should be a balance. But to work out whether we are overstaffed with bureaucrats, we need to know what we want them to do in universities, and what an appropriate level of this workforce is. Simply demonstrating, as Wolf does in her research, a historic growth of non academics that is faster than that of academics, proves nothing in and of itself.
And ultimately if we want front line professionals to do professional work, we need to keep their focus on that. If we want teachers to teach, surgeons to operate, and academics to research, we need support structures which maximise that — complete, if needed, with pens and red tape.