As Prof Colin Talbot states in his article for the London School of Economic & Political Sciences (LSE), the UK once had a thriving ecosystem of practical and academic research into the functioning of public institutions. Yet today both academia and the wider public lack a basic general knowledge of public administration in the UK – and it’s not without consequences.
The two points in my life where this issue troubled me were on rocking up to Sunningdale in late 2006 as a new in-service Fast Streamer, and more recently on the discovery of the old Penguin Classics.
Go into any bookshop and you’ll find there is a very, very limited selection of books on politics aimed at a young audience. The BBC’s Andrew Marr had a go here, while the Usborne group had a go here. And that’s about all I have found in local bookshops.
2006 was a rollercoaster of a year for me – the like of which I’ll never live again. For a start I spent two months of that year outside the UK – mainly in Vienna. Just as in 1999 I was ready to leave Cambridge for the first time (to go to university), so in 2006 I was ready to leave for a second time. Although I wanted to stay in Brighton after graduation, my mental health wasn’t strong enough to live independently. Furthermore, my time at university was horrific – made worse by the complete lack of support and mentoring from the institution. (I still haven’t forgiven them!) Thus I never got into the habit of researching grant-funding organisations for post-graduate study.
Before joining the civil service in 2004 I spent two years part-time at Anglia Ruskin on what was a highly-regarded masters course on post-war European history. Essentially it was the history of the European Union taught by a mix of Europhile and Eurosceptic tutors – but what mattered was both knew their subjects. It was a tragedy that ARU lost David Weigall before the EU Referendum as he was one of the very few Eurosceptics who knew his subject. I dare say the media debate would have benefited from his input.
It was in my first week of my London years having transferred down from the civil service’s old regional Government Office in Cambridge (which covered East Anglia) that I found myself sent to Sunningdale by my new line manager to take her place on a project management course. “Hitting the ground running and running very fast” was how I described my first few weeks! It was that course where I learnt the essentials on what to ask at the start of big projects – including risk assessments.
Sunningdale – the old National School of Government campus
Long since privatised, I never really took a shine to the place because it felt so ‘corporate’. But it was a place in the countryside where short but very intense training courses were held, and where delegates stayed for a few nights in between. Such places are notorious for putting on weight as I was later to find. But back then I was still doing regular dance classes after work on weekdays. Furthermore, the site was very close to the flight path of Heathrow Airport, so it wasn’t nearly as relaxing as was originally intended by the designers. How can it be with a large passenger aircraft going by every minute?
The courses were hit-and-miss for me. I liked the principle The best one by a country mile for me was Parliament, Government and the Civil Service – long since scrapped. Basically it was a fun course for political nerds like me. A week with experts in the field role-playing ministers and functions, and 3 days back in central London based in Parliament meeting very well-known and/or influential figures who told you what political life was *really* like. It was on this course that a former Director of Comms in Downing Street (not Mr Campbell) asked us what we thought was the most trustworthy print newspaper. Most of us could find faults with the liberal and conservative press, but could not pin down one on trust. “The Financial Times/FT – on the grounds that money does not lie to itself” was the answer.
Styles of learning
I soon learnt that the short intense courses were not suited for my style of learning. I was and still am much more suited to longer courses where you can get to know the tutor and fellow students – though in recent years I’ve struggled due to mental health/exhaustion. Furthermore, online learning was still in its infancy in the mid-2000s. Today, social media, podcasts, vlogs and videos have transformed everything.
What we lost – the institutions
Prof Talbot mentions the new postgraduate courses which are MBAs aimed at public policy people – hence the branding of MPA/MPP. In more recent times though, a number of universities have founded new public policy institutes as a means of linking their academic research with what’s happening in Westminster. This is in response to the demand for evidence-based policy-making coming from the civil service. The University of Bristol under Prof Alex Marsh was one of the first that I became aware of with its School of Policy Studies. With 170 staff and a further 59 postgraduate researchers, it has more than enough firepower to take on the partisan think tanks often quoted in the news.
My take is that university public policy institutions need to be far more effective at how they work with the broadcast media – in particular their relationships with producers and their junior researchers who book the guests for things like the last minute comment slot all-too-easily taken by rent-a-quote organisations that don’t actually have any expertise or research background in what they are talking about.
The Royal Institution for Public Administration
Given the size of the state, I never really got my head around why the old Royal Institution for Public Administration was wound up by the Tories in 1992. What’s left of it was spun off to Capita as RIPA International. Whether the post-graduate market remains as lucrative in the post-CV19 world as before remains to be seen. I don’t know enough about the old institution’s history to know if the present and highly-regarded Institute for Government serves a similar purpose. The IfG’s accounts are here.
Refinding that lost history
A few months ago I fell down an internet worm hole and found some of the early documents on the founding of the UK Civil Service. (See my blogpost here). These included some of the early texts and guides to candidates applying for the civil service in the mid-1800s. The knowledge that candidates had to acquire might seem archaic now, but one of the drivers was the creation of the Indian civil service and an elite to ‘administer the Empire’. The documents seem to show that it was lessons from the creation of the Indian civil service that was then applied to what we now know as the UK civil service. Bearing in mind the exploitative nature of the Empire, and the desire of the ruling political class to stay in control, it’s not hard to see how such values that we’d see as utterly toxic today, came to be applied by the UK Civil Service such as the bar on women and the colour bar.
Above – from the British Newspaper Archive, report from Conservative Secretary of State for the Air, and later Chancellor under Churchill, Sir Kingsley Wood restating his institutionally racist policy of the colour bar in the RAF. Had I been around at the time, I would have been disqualified from the RAF on such grounds (even though I can trace my British ancestry back to the 16th Century! I am of a very mixed heritage!)
What were they fighting for? What were they administering for?
With the recent commemorations of the various wars (centenary of the First World War and its bloody battles) along with the 75th anniversaries of VE & VJ day this year, one of the issues that is hard to avoid given the casualty lists is what they were all fighting for. This is particularly true in Cambridge & Cambridgeshire because of the disaster that was the Fall of Singapore in 1942. The 1st & 2nd Battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment were part of the doomed 18th Infantry Division diverted to the ‘impregnable fortress’, arriving just before it fell to the Japanese. So many of the political factors leading to its capitulation were based around both outright racism & prejudice combined with a surreal level of incompetence. As well as the British, Australian, and Indian prisoners (Both Australia and India had a division of soldiers each in Malaysia in 1941/42) taken at Singapore, one group of very forgotten victims were the Chinese in Malaya & Singapore, who had been raising huge sums for their fellow people in China fighting the Japanese in a brutal conflict that started long before Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. Just as British colonial and administrative policy resulted in some of my ancestors in another branch of my family moving from India to Mauritius to work on plantations in the 1800s, so did large numbers of people from China move to South East Asia to work on the rubber plantations amongst other things.
New, low cost books informing the debate
As the wars went on, and this was particularly the case in WWII, we started to see the publication of a whole host of books, booklets and pamphets by Penguin under their low cost Pelican label, and other publishers that fed into the debate of what would happen after the war.
Lots of books and lots of time to read
For me, one of the things lacking during election time is a very basic understanding of the institutions the electorate is electing representatives to, and the powers they are granting collectively to the representatives they elect. This in part is stereotypically reflected by elections to university student unions.
In the case of many towns and smaller cities, the fragmentation of local government means that “the council” is often more than one organisation. Take Cambridge. Cambridge City Council is responsible for the city’s car parks, but Cambridgeshire County Council is responsible for the roads and highways. Cambridge City Council is currently run by Cambridge Labour Party – and before that Cambridge Liberal Democrats. (See Colin & Keith’s election charts here). Cambridgeshire County Council is a solid Tory run council, give or take a UKIP blip. which in the run up to the EURef denied them an absolute majority.
Shouldn’t someone refresh and reprint all of those old books?
It would be nice, but there’s no guarantee that people would read them. It would need to be part of a wider campaign. Personally I’m in favour of politics being on the national curriculum in principle. The acid test is with delivery – making lessons, classes and outward bound visits engaging and meaningful so that as adults they can apply their learning in participating in the democratic systems. Successive governments have refrained from bringing this in despite calls in particular from young people themselves. One excuse I’ve often heard is that the teaching profession is full of ‘lefties’ who will indoctrinate the students to become socialists. But then is the popularity of church attendance reflected by the number of faith schools across the country?
Given that our political institutions cannot even organise the publication of essential guides for each constituency for each election, it’s left to groups like the Democracy Society and their online tools such as Who can I vote for? and Where can I vote? to try and fill in the gaps on a shoestring budget that senior politicians and ministers refuse to have filled. Ideally for every council election there would be a guide like this for each ward. And it should be properly funded. But it isn’t. And I don’t have any faith in the present administration to make any meaningful improvements in the near future.