Monday, 12 July 2010

Ministers can't ignore the boring details

The many twists and turns in the school buildings fiasco (many of which have been ably exposed by Ed Balls) seem to point to a major flaw at the heart of the coalition's approach to government: a failure to bother themselves sufficiently with the details and a wish covertly to continue in opposition rather than accepting the trials and tribulations of government.

The wholly unfair Sunday briefings against Tim Byles, an able leader of Partnership for Schools who pushed the capital programme back into shape, suggests an ugly tendency among some in government towards smears and childish oppositionism. But the fact is that whatever capital programme emerges to replace Building Schools for the Future will need someone to run it and keep the costs in check, and that expertise does not exist within the Department for Education, nor is it easy to find outside it. Michael Gove has deservedly been praised for his willingness publicly to accept responsibility for last week's fiasco; one must hope that he can equally publicly disown the trashing of Byles and PFS, and put a stop to similar such briefings.

The lesson that he - and his fellow ministers - should draw from last week's affair is that they need to look in much greater detail at the implications of decisions, and recognise that the simple slogans of opposition do not always easily translate into the effective policy of government. That is not to say that the ministers should accept everything they are told by the civil servants, especially where their advice could scupper the coalition's radical reforms; rather it is to recognise that without proper checks, without a recognition of the delivery mechanisms and agencies needed to effect policy, and without a clear message, the government will come seriously unstuck.

Civitas has rightly drawn attention to the likely three year setback that will result from a rapid rush to GP commissioning, a view largely echoed by the excellent Chris Ham from the Kings Fund on Today this morning. And the idea that the independent Food Standards Agency should simply be absorbed into the DoH beggars belief. Here are two accidents waiting to happen. And they won't be the only ones unless ministers recognise that they need to take charge and get behind the important details, rather than operating like a permanent opposition.

It may be boring, it is certainly time-consuming, but without greater focus on details the coalition will not last nearly as long as many people think.

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