Kate Bingham is one of many public figures to accuse the government, civil service, and the media of being a â€śblobâ€ť resistant to reform. Is it really a problem?
Claudia williams, narrating:
Hello, Iâ€™m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.
One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.
Today, is a â€śblobâ€ť running Britain? And is it causing more harm than good?
â€śThere is no stopping The Blob as it spreads from town to town.â€ťThe Blob, 1958
Thatâ€™s the trailer for the 1950â€™s horror film â€“ The Blob.Â
Starring Steve McQueen it tells the story of a giant red jelly-like amoeba that swallows everything in its path.Â
At first, no one believes Steve McQueenâ€™s character. But slowly the town wakes up to the danger of the alien monster.Â
So whatâ€™s an old horror film with questionable special effects got to do with politics right now?
Well, key public figures have been calling out parliament, the civil service, courts and the mainstream media for being a â€śblobâ€ťÂ â€“ a blob that embraces â€śgroupthinkâ€ť over innovation and reform.Â
Those figures include Kate Bingham â€“Â a venture capitalist with 30 years experience in the bio-science sector.Â
She was brought in to head the vaccine taskforce to procure jabs when the Covid pandemic struck.Â
Itâ€™s safe to say she did a pretty good job.Â
So should we be listening to Kate Bingham?Â And is there a blob blocking change in our institutions?
Letâ€™s deal first with who pulls the levers of power in the UK.Â
Central government has three key components:
Parliament â€“ elected members who represent the public.Â Â
The judiciary â€“ judges and the courts.Â
And the executive â€“ the government, its ministers and its civil servants.Â
Sometimes they overlap.Â Take Rishi Sunak. He is an MP but also Chancellor of the Exchequer â€“ so he runs the Treasury with civil servants.Â
Itâ€™s worth noting that those working at the Treasury arenâ€™t appointed by ministers.Â
In all, there are almost half a million of them across the government.Â Â
And for Kate Bingham, they represent a problem.
Here is Kate Bingham speaking at Oxford University on Tuesday night
â€śIt has become clear to me as it has been clear to others before and sinceÂ â€“ that for all its many strengths our current system of executive government suffers from serious structural weaknesses.â€ťKate Bingham
She didnâ€™t hold back.Â
â€śI saw an almost obsessive desire among officials to avoid any suggestion of personal error or scope for criticism, and a concern amounting to paranoia about media handling and the possible public reaction. This created groupthink and a massive aversion to risk which, which in turn held back innovation, and the pace of execution.â€ťKate Bingham
And she says that not enough of those inside the â€śgroupâ€ť had the sort of skills found in the outside world.Â Â
â€śThe first challenge is what seemed to be a notable lack of scientific, industrial, commercial and manufacturing skills, both among civil servants and politicians.â€ťKate Bingham
Kate Bingham called for a massive rethink of the entire system.Â
â€śI believe what is needed is a fundamental reset that goes far beyond addressing individual symptoms.â€ťKate Bingham
As criticism goes, it was pretty full on.Â
So should we listen to Kate Bingham?Â
Because there were accusations of â€śchumocracyâ€ť when she was appointed by Downing Street.
Especially as there was no recruitment process and her husband was Jesse Norman â€“ a Tory MP and former finance minister.Â
But her appointment â€“ as head of the vaccine taskforce â€“ was a success.Â Â Â
The UK led the way on vaccine procurement and Brits were jabbed sooner than many people elsewhere in the world.Â Â
And the reasons for the UKâ€™s success?Â It was the task force taking a leaf out of the business and venture capitalist playbook.Â Had Whitehall been left to its own devices, there might have been more problems than solutions.Â That, at least, is Kate Binghamâ€™s argument.
Kate Bingham isnâ€™t alone in her view.Â
The former Education Secretary, Michael Gove described the government officials, teachers and researchers who opposed his reforms as the â€śblobâ€ť.Â
Working with Michael Gove at the time was Dominic Cummings..Â Until last year he was Boris Johnsonâ€™s chief adviser â€” and he too is critical of both the civil service and the media.
Especially when it came to the pandemic response.
â€śIn some ways, the covid stuff accelerated a lot of the things that I wanted to do. One of the big arguments I made was that the civil service has to reform and does not have the right skills in placeâ€”that is now obvious.â€ťDominic Cummings
Last weekend former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was the latest to voice his frustration.Â
He pulled out of the running to chair the media regulator, Ofcom, with a stinging attack on senior civil servants.Â His experience, he said, had been an â€śinfelicitous dalliance with the blobâ€ť.Â
Of course, in one sense itâ€™s easy for prominent individuals who want to â€śget things doneâ€ť to call out those who they think are getting in their way.Â And they tend to be quicker than institutions when it comes to pointing to their success: it pays to be first when it comes to providing a narrative.Â Â Â
And while positive outcomes are always to be welcomed, itâ€™s not as though publicly accountable civil servants can ignore due process â€“ something that Bingham acknowledges.Â Â Â
â€śTo be clear, I am not remotely suggesting that appropriate agreed procedures should be ignored or bridged.â€ťKate Bingham
The billions spent â€“ or wasted â€“ on providing health workers with personal protective equipment underlines the importance of accountability.Â
Itâ€™s not as if bureaucracy has no place in running a country. Checks and balancesÂ are important parts of the process .
But itâ€™s difficult to escape the conclusion that Kate Bingham and people like her donâ€™t have a role to play too â€“ an important one.
Todayâ€™s story was written by Phoebe Davis and produced by Imy Harper.
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