Thursday 25 November 2021
Kate Bingham is one of many public figures to accuse the government, civil service, and the media of being a “blob” resistant to reform. Is it really a problem?
Claudia williams, narrating:
Hello, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.
One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.
Today, is a “blob” running Britain? And is it causing more harm than good?
“There is no stopping The Blob as it spreads from town to town.”The Blob, 1958
That’s the trailer for the 1950’s horror film – The Blob.
Starring Steve McQueen it tells the story of a giant red jelly-like amoeba that swallows everything in its path.
At first, no one believes Steve McQueen’s character. But slowly the town wakes up to the danger of the alien monster.
So what’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 “blob” – a blob that embraces “groupthink” over innovation and reform.
Those figures include Kate Bingham – a venture capitalist with 30 years experience in the bio-science sector.
She was brought in to head the vaccine taskforce to procure jabs when the Covid pandemic struck.
It’s safe to say she did a pretty good job.
So should we be listening to Kate Bingham? And is there a blob blocking change in our institutions?
Let’s deal first with who pulls the levers of power in the UK.
Central government has three key components:
Parliament – elected members who represent the public.
The judiciary – judges and the courts.
And the executive – the government, its ministers and its civil servants.
Sometimes they overlap. Take Rishi Sunak. He is an MP but also Chancellor of the Exchequer – so he runs the Treasury with civil servants.
It’s worth noting that those working at the Treasury aren’t appointed by ministers.
In all, there are almost half a million of them across the government.
And for Kate Bingham, they represent a problem.
Here is Kate Bingham speaking at Oxford University on Tuesday night
“It has become clear to me as it has been clear to others before and since – that for all its many strengths our current system of executive government suffers from serious structural weaknesses.”Kate Bingham
She didn’t hold back.
“I 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.”Kate Bingham
And she says that not enough of those inside the “group” had the sort of skills found in the outside world.
“The first challenge is what seemed to be a notable lack of scientific, industrial, commercial and manufacturing skills, both among civil servants and politicians.”Kate Bingham
Kate Bingham called for a massive rethink of the entire system.
“I believe what is needed is a fundamental reset that goes far beyond addressing individual symptoms.”Kate Bingham
As criticism goes, it was pretty full on.
So should we listen to Kate Bingham?
Because there were accusations of “chumocracy” when she was appointed by Downing Street.
Especially as there was no recruitment process and her husband was Jesse Norman – a Tory MP and former finance minister.
But her appointment – as head of the vaccine taskforce – was a success.
The UK led the way on vaccine procurement and Brits were jabbed sooner than many people elsewhere in the world.
And the reasons for the UK’s success? It was the task force taking a leaf out of the business and venture capitalist playbook. Had Whitehall been left to its own devices, there might have been more problems than solutions. That, at least, is Kate Bingham’s argument.
Kate Bingham isn’t alone in her view.
The former Education Secretary, Michael Gove described the government officials, teachers and researchers who opposed his reforms as the “blob”.
Working with Michael Gove at the time was Dominic Cummings.. Until last year he was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser — and he too is critical of both the civil service and the media.
Especially when it came to the pandemic response.
“In 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 place—that is now obvious.”Dominic Cummings
Last weekend former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was the latest to voice his frustration.
He pulled out of the running to chair the media regulator, Ofcom, with a stinging attack on senior civil servants. His experience, he said, had been an “infelicitous dalliance with the blob”.
Of course, in one sense it’s easy for prominent individuals who want to “get things done” to call out those who they think are getting in their way. 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.
And while positive outcomes are always to be welcomed, it’s not as though publicly accountable civil servants can ignore due process – something that Bingham acknowledges.
“To be clear, I am not remotely suggesting that appropriate agreed procedures should be ignored or bridged.”Kate Bingham
The billions spent – or wasted – on providing health workers with personal protective equipment underlines the importance of accountability.
It’s not as if bureaucracy has no place in running a country. Checks and balances are important parts of the process .
But it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Kate Bingham and people like her don’t have a role to play too – an important one.
Today’s story was written by Phoebe Davis and produced by Imy Harper.
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