Sunday, 17 April 2016

How to grind the Gravy Train to a halt - Civil Servants business class flights

The latest scandal to hit the headlines in the past week has been the not-so-shocking revelations that over the past 5 years almost £400,000 was spent on business class flights for top level civil servants.

This information came to light because of a written question I lodged in the States Assembly, the breakdown of which can be viewed HERE.

This of course follows the specific scandal of Mike King (CEO of the Economic Development Department) and Wayne Gallichan (Director at Locate Jersey quango) spending £13,000 on a single trip to South Africa, on the basis that they needed to be comfortable as they flew over as they would be working from the moment they arrived, only later to admit that they played golf on arrival.

There has been a lot of commentary about this and what can be done in future to secure better value for money for taxpayers.

My view is that virtually all of this commentary has missed the point so I want to make my contribution to the debate here.

But let's be clear about this from the outset - 

It is morally repugnant to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a civil service gravy train when cuts are being forced on the poorest and most vulnerable people on the Island.

We all pay tax, we are all part of Jersey society and we are all entitled to enjoy the security that the state is meant to provide for it's citizens. This means that the government has a responsibility to ensure that our money is spent properly and that the needs of society as a whole come before the 'nice-to-haves' for a small minority of people who are already paid incredibly well as it is.

Yes, sometimes politicians and civil servants will have to travel outside of the Island from time to time to make the case for Jersey and to drum up business. Yes, the States should be a good employer and ensure that it's workers are treated fairly and are comfortable whilst they are working. And yes, sometimes that means forking out money to make sure these people are able to do what we need them to do.

But we have been told time and time again by the right-wing Council of Ministers that their entire political ethos is based around the idea of "small government" and making the States more efficient, yet we find out that right under Ian Gorst's nose for these past years that the civil servants he works closest with have been robbing the public blind at the same time as urging him to follow a political line which sees cuts to support for the disabled and pensioners as well as raising new taxes on middle earners which will see them potentially thousands of pounds a year worse off.

There is an entirely legitimate argument which could be put to me, as a politician from the social democratic side of the political spectrum, that this is a relatively small amount of money in comparison to some of the major cuts and projects on the horizon and it would be a better use of my time to focus on the bigger picture.

I partially agree with that, which is why I believe the debate on this should focus on the context and the political causes of these scandals, rather than looking at it as a single issue.

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee Deputy Andrew Lewis has been in the media stating that they are going to look at the procedures and rules which are in place that have allowed these costs to spiral out of control and make recommendations for reform. The media has put the question to me several times about whether I think that this will work or not.

My answer is that it will help, but it ignores the central issue. Here is that central issue -

The reason that this civil service gravy train exists is because the top civil servants and senior politicians are far too cosy with each other, and their own careers depend upon them looking out for one another and bailing them out when they are in trouble.

In most civilised jurisdictions around the world the public have the ability at an election to throw out a government and replace it with an entirely new one.

That new government will normally turn up to the office on day one with a comprehensive manifesto which they have just received a mandate from the public for, which they will present to their civil servants who are instructed to turn that manifesto into action.

The fact that this democratic mechanism exists means that the civil service of these jurisdictions have official procedures in place to cope with a wholesale change in government administration, so that if a government is replaced with a new one, they are able to deal with the upheaval and get to work on whatever it is they are instructed to do, without prejudice to that new government nor favour to the outgoing one. Basically, they must always be on their toes because they know that their way of doing things and the projects they involve themselves in could be overhauled by the democratic will of the people who they ultimately serve.

In Jersey however the situation is completely different.

Voters are offered a false choice at elections where candidates come forward, denying any connections either personally or in philosophy with the other candidates, and ask you to vote for them based on their smile, who their dad was and who can come up with the most interesting (but ultimately vacuous) statements on their leaflets.

The same government remains, with a minor alteration of the faces which represent it.

For the civil service, it is always business as usual. They probably don't even notice that elections even happen.

Those new faces in government are elected with no policies.

Most of those who end up as ministers take up a portfolio which they have virtually no plan for and usually little more than a few sentences in their leaflets or at their hustings about what they would actually do with that power.

Some of them even end up in a particular office that they didn't even want. Take Anne Pryke for example. She actually stood for election saying she wanted to continue on as Health Minister, only to be told by Ian Gorst that it was Andrew Green's turn so she had to go to Housing instead.

Because of this fact, the ministers are utterly dependent on their civil servants (who to their credit know their departments inside out) to actually explain to them how things run and what changes could feasibly be made.

A huge amount of time and money is spent on civil servants actually creating the minister's policies for them. In some departments there is even a routine and systematic privatisation of policy making to quangos instead.

But all this means is that the success of a minister is predicated on the quality of advice they receive from their civil servants. Basically, their re-election and careers depends on those who they are actually meant to be holding to account.

Likewise, those top civil servants (who are paid incredibly well and have an inordinate amount of security in their jobs) depend upon having lightweight politicians take those ministerial roles and keeping them as ignorant as possible about what is really going on so that their position is never seen as anything other than absolutely essential to them.

There is an unbreakable cycle and this is where the poison sets in.

When they spend all this time together, they become too cosy with one another and become incapable of holding each other to account.

How can any of us therefore find it surprising that some of these people end up taking the Mickey with their own public spending on themselves?

They believe they can get away with it, so they push the boundaries and the perks become seen as an entitlement, regardless of the standards they uphold.

This inevitably means we waste huge amounts of money and the ministers are none the wiser because the perpetrators are those whose advice they seek to ask how to make their departments more efficient.

Instead, they say sack frontline workers. They say means-test this or that service. They say outsource or privatise this function. They never say ask them and their mates to do more for less like they know they are capable of doing.

By a bizarre twist of fate, the person who has been my greatest ally in demonstrating this fact to be true is actually Senator Philip Ozouf.

Philip (whom I actually get on with really well, even though we disagree on a huge number of things politically) wrote a blog a few days ago to comment on this very subject and jump to the defence of some of those named by the media. His blog can be read HERE.

In this post he defends Colin Powell and Joe Moynihan as being wonderful ambassadors for the Island who have contributed hugely to our success in recent years.

That may well be totally true. In the case of Colin Powell, my own private conversations with him lead me to believe that he believes in the principles of what a good civil servant should be and I believe that he would probably agree with the points I made above about the civil service always being prepared for alternative governments with alternative agendas.

But Senator Ozouf spectacularly misses the point.

This isn't about who these people are and how good they may or may not have been for the Island.

The personalities are irrelevant.

This is about a system that allows so much waste in the public sector, led by people who are unaccountable and have made themselves so indispensable that they end up leaving people like Senator Ozouf feeling like he has no choice but to stick his head above the parapet and defend the indefensible.

It is the job of a politician is to lead, to construct a positive and credible vision for the future and to have the ability to manage his or her staff to deliver on that vision. It isn't the job of those behind the scenes to lead.

Many of those who work in our civil service may well be incredible people who work hard and are committed to their Island. But that should never ever be an excuse for not holding them to account when they make mistakes. If the politicians see it as their job to protect these people no matter what, then we are truly in a mess.

I believe that there is only one way the grind this gravy train to a halt and that is to demonstrate to the civil service that there is no such thing as "business as usual" for them any more and to elect an entire new government who can show up on day one and say that Jersey has become a true democracy with a true government system which is fit for purpose to deliver for it's people what they desire as a community.

If that cannot be recognised, then we better get used to millions of pounds of taxpayers money continuing to be wasted forever.


  1. 23/03/2011 India

    Director of International Finance: Ministerial visit to sign a Tax Information Exchange Agreement, launch the Jersey Finance Office in India and strengthen political, cultural and economic relations with India.

    18/08/2011 India

    Director of International Finance: Ministerial visit to sign a Tax Information Exchange Agreement, launch the Jersey Finance Office in India and strengthen political, cultural and economic relations with India.

    Groundhog day?

  2. If it is correct then you are so more democratic and ahead of your sister island of Jersey in controlling the civil service.

    The recently voted second most popular politician - a States Deputy called Sam Mezec, explains how the Jersey senior civil service works, disciplined behind closed doors but sacked come off it ?

    Found comments section Guernsey Press, not afraid to redirect to blogs unlike the JEP.

  3. RE,the BNP bank agreeing to take space up in the finance centre, and any other companies that do, maybe they are just getting on the band wagon with a view of making loads of money, by way of compensation should things go breasts up.

  4. What about Tax Payer rights who are tired of paying the high wages for cleaning and waste disposal services that can be done cheaper in the private sector?

    1. As I've said in all of my interviews, outsourcing won't provide better value for money for taxpayers.

      This sort of thing has been tried and tested in parts of England and ends up costing taxpayers tens of millions of pounds when it goes wrong.