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10 September 2012

Next time let's reshuffle the system not just the ministers

Last week was a lot of fun for Westminster watchers. A more extensive than expected reshuffle provided wonderful entertainment for politics geeks, if not for the 29 ministers who were shown the door (or who rushed for the door hurling curses and imprecations behind them).

But what does it all amount to? Not as much as the Prime Minister might hope, says Chris Dillow on his Stumbling and Mumbling blog: 

  • "At risk of sounding like Danny Finkelstein – not that there's anything wrong with that – the key to understanding the Cabinet reshuffle lies in what's happened to Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. The club hoped that the new manager would improve their fortunes, and yet the team's prospects seem as poor as a few months ago. This corroborates evidence from Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, which shows that changing managers does not generally improve teams' performance."  

This is more than just a sporting analogy, says Mr Dillow. Evidence from other professions shows that the performance of managers "tends to deteriorate after they change firm": 

  • "There’s a reason for this. Organizational capital often matters more than individual talent. Some nice evidence for this comes from a study of heart surgeons by Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano. They found that the quality of a surgeon’s work improves with experience at the same hospital, but does not improve with his experience at other hospitals. This suggests that a surgeon's skills are not portable across hospitals but are instead embedded in his relationships with colleagues and specific hospitals."  

The concept of organisational capital is particularly relevant to the business of government, where by far the most powerful organisation present is not that of the Prime Minister and his allies, but that of the civil service: 

  • "What’s more, the very facts that ministers lack management experience and are so often reshuffled makes it likely that they'll ‘go native’ and conform to the wishes of Sir Humphreys. So again, organizational capital dominates individual agency. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a separate issue."  

No doubt there are circumstances when the rule of the "Sir Humphreys" is good thing; but when a nation is so in need of institutional renewal and political leadership as our own, institutional inertia is an overwhelmingly bad thing.

None of this is to say that this Government hasn’t made progress in certain areas – for instance, on welfare reform, education and decentralisation. However, in each case, ministers have succeeded despite the system, not because of it.


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