Government Learning – an oxymoron?

A new NAO Report – Helping Government Learn – sets out to encourage better policies and practice for ‘organisational learning’ in government.

It will be an uphill struggle, as they report that nearly 90 percent of management boards in government organisations do not discuss learning from their activities frequently and only half of government departments have ‘contribution to organisational learning’ as a competency for senior managers.

The report highlights examples of both good and bad practice – the latter including: the problems with the £12bn NHS IT system; the ill-fated Child Support Agency; the virtual collapse of the subsidy system to farmers during major changes; and the cancellation of a planned asylum centre after easily predictable local objections and planning delays.

The NAO attributes these problems to several factors including ‘silo’ structures, ineffective mechanisms to support learning, high staff turnover at senior levels and lack of time for learning.

What NAO doesn’t identify – in its usual polite way – is that what really causes the above problems is Britain’s political and administrative culture of centralism and hubris. The problem is best captured is a quotation inserted into the NAO report from a summary of recent ‘Capability Reviews’ which said:

  • “the Reviews have shown that there is scope for improved learning and sharing across departments and their delivery chains. It is important that good practice spreads across the Civil Service.”

The crucial phrase to note here is “their delivery chains”. This may just be another piece of imported management jargon but it’s use speaks volumes about the way Whitehall sees townhalls and other public sector bodies – they are subordinate parts of a “delivery chain” stretching from Ministers desks to the frontlines of pubic services. Despite all the recent rhetoric about ‘localism’ and devolving freedoms to the frontline, in reality this is how ministers and mandarins think about public services – as a top-down ‘delivery chain’ into which they pump policies, regulations, targets and money and out of the bottom of which pops ‘delivery’.

Just look at a couple of recent examples in the past week. I have already commented on the opportunist ‘initiative’ by local government Minister John Healey to force local councils to publish the pay packages of senior staff – something that ought to be a local decision (see ‘Sir Fred Goodwin’s Pension: Pay for Performance?’ 27 Feb 09). Similarly in the past few days education ministers, led by Ed Balls – one of the supposed advocates of localism – have decided to carry out a review of the use of lotteries to allocate schools places by local education authorities with a view to banning them. Whatever one thinks about the issue – isn’t this something to be decided locally?

Until the Westminister-Whitehall village decides to abandon its hubristic belief that it always knows best the idea of serious ‘organisational learning’ is dead in the water.

Incidentally, in my evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee before Christmas I pointed out that a combination of high staff turnover at senior levels and the collapse of the old-fashioned paper-based files systems meant that Whitehall tended to suffer more from organisational Alzheimer’s than to benefit from organisational learning.

See also Nick Timmins Civil servants ‘fail’ to learn from past FT today

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