This is a report, much quoted in the business of public administration theory and practice (I know, thrilling stuff…), chaired by Viscount Haldane and a small group of worthies, to focus on “the responsibilities of the various Departments of the central executive Government, and to advise in what manner the exercise and distribution of the Government of its functions should be improved.”
Couldn’t get much drier and more obscure than that, right? And it was a report from the Machinery of Government committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction. Pulse-racing stuff.
But of course, like so many things old, it’s still all as new and relevant as ever.
This is Haldane’s good practice guide to Cabinet process and effectiveness:
(i) The Cabinet should be small in number-preferably ten, or, at most, twelve; (ii) it should meet frequently; (iii) it should be supplied in the most convenient form with all the information and material necessary to enable it to arrive at expeditious decisions; (iv) it should make a point of consulting personally all the Ministers whose work is likely to be affected by its decisions; and (v) it should have a systematic method of securing that its decisions are effectually carried out by the several Departments concerned.
1o Ministers. Nice.
What about the formulation of policy? Exhortations to research, think and consider options before acting were in order, apparently:
Turning next to the formulation of policy, we have come to the conclusion, after surveying what came before us, that in the sphere of civil government the duty of investigation and thought, as preliminary to action, might with great ad vantage he more definitely recognised.
It appears to us that adequate provision has not been made in the past for the organised acquisition of facts and information; and for the systematic application of thought, as preliminary to the settlement of policy and its subsequent administration.
There’s a thing. “The systematic application of thought, as preliminary to the settlement of policy…”. Or what we now like to describe as a predisposition for “evidence based” policy making.
Given the date of the report, much of its focus was about the transfer into civilian government of the discipline and crisp clarity of military planning and execution. But the report did accept that might not always be as easy as it sounded “because the exact objectives of civil administration are less obvious and less easily defined.” Indeed. Something much of our contemporary discussion of public sector management and accountability doesn’t always reflect.
Next question – how to determine the best way to divide up the functions and structures of government?
‘I’here appear to be only two alternatives, which may be briefly described as distribution according to the persons or classes to be dealt with and distribution according to the services to be performed.
Either you divide by the nature of what government does, or by the nature of the people and interests is is supposed to be doing it for. Not much change there, I guess. Haldane recommends “defining the field of activity in the case of each Department according to the particular service which it renders to the community as a whole.”
Diversity didn’t get missed either:
…we are strongly of opinion that among the changes that should be made as conducive to this end must certainly be included an extension of the range and variety of the duties entrusted to women in the Civil Service and in practically all Departments.
And to the question of whether women could be admitted to the Class 1 exams (the top of the system), the experience of 4 years of war, in which many women were doing Class 1 work anyway, led to the further conclusion that “we therefore think that it is no longer expedient in the public interest to exclude women on the ground of sex from situations usually entered by the Class 1. examination, or from other situations usually entered by competition.” Nothing like a war to loosen the constraints of institutional inertia and social mobility.
And four big principles conclude this part of the report:
(a) Further provision is needed in the sphere of civil government for the continuous acquisition of knowledge and the prosecution of research, in order to furnish a proper basis for policy.
(b) The distribution of business between administrative Departments should be governed by the nature of the service which is assigned to each Department. But close regard should be paid to the necessity for co-operation between Departments in dealing with business of common interest
( c) In the organisation of individual Departments, special importance should be attached to securing proper consideration of proposals for expenditure, unimpaired Ministerial responsibility, co-operation with advisory bodies in matters which bring Departments into contact with the public, and the employment of qualified women.
(d) A more efficient public service may expose the State to the evils of bureaucracy unless the reality of Parliamentary control is so enforced as to keep pace with any improvement in departmental methods.
Agility, collaboration, evidence-based policy, accountability…it’s all there.
But I especially liked to the final paragraph from the Viscount and his team, which struck me as especially modern:
Whatever validity may attach in the abstract to the principles which we have ventured to suggest, their practical efficacy will depend upon the zeal and discretion with which they are applied from day to day by Parliament, by Ministers, and by the officers of Departments, the living forces whose spirit is essential to any form of government that is more than a machine.