Nick Herbert is the MP for Arundel and a former Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. Follow Nick on Twitter.
Would you take a job where you are accountable for everything, but you cannot appoint or remove your staff, who are accountable for nothing? Of course not. Yet that is exactly what we ask ministers to do. One of the first things you discover as a minister is that civil servants, even those in your own private office, don’t actually work for you. And since officials can’t be held to account for departmental failings, and ministers can’t meaningfully be held responsible for every detail, the reality is that no-one is accountable at all.
No doubt the public believe that a minister has great power, and of course in some respects they do. Most of the time, however, I exercised it by making requests to officials in the apologetic manner of Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson: “Would you mind awfully ...?” Where officials were good, they were very good indeed. The problem was that where performance was poor - ministerial correspondence in the Home Office was particularly dire - it was extraordinarily difficult to effect change.
Illiterate letters are the least of a government’s problems. As Richard Bacon MP and Chris Hope have written ahead of their book to be published on Tuesday, the mismanagement of major programmes such as the now-abandoned NHS IT project or the West Coast Mainline franchise has been ruinously expensive. Yet “the public very rarely sees anyone in Whitehall being held to account for mistakes. This has created what we have called ‘Teflon civil servants’ – those officials whose career progress appears unaffected by spending cock-ups which have cost taxpayers millions or even billions.”