By HAROLD NICOLSON
THE Select Committee on National Expenditure was instituted at the beginning of the war in order to suggest economies, and to prevent overlapping, in the vast administrative machinery which, as was foreseen, a total war was bound to create. It was evident from the outset that the House of Commons, through a Select Committee, ought to be kept in touch with this enormous bureaucratic expansion, and should thus be able to keep a watchful and benevolent eye upon the ways in which the credits which they voted were actually spent. Inevitably also any such committee could not be bound by too rigid terms of reference, since it is unprofitable to examine waste without also examining the causes of wastage, nor would it be sensible to confine the scope of a committee merely to the examination of past or present extravagance without allowing it to suggest reforms by which future overlapping or multiplication of effort may be avoided. The Select Committee established during the session of 1930-1940 has indeed taken its functions seriously, and has displayed a zest for enquiry and sug- gestion which may, at some points, have carried it well beyond the purposes for which it was originally constituted. It might be said, even, that the Select Committee is itself allowing its activities to overlap those of the Public Accounts Committee, and that it is acquiring an authority and a competence never contemplated at the time when it was first established. It does not seem that this criticism is justified. The committee is composed of active and representative members under an experienced chairman. They may well have exceeded their brief, bur if so they have trespassed wisely. In their sixteenth report they have dealt with the organisation and control of the Civil Service ; they have gone further ; they have suggested important measures of administrative reform. And when we reflect upon the torrent of bureaucrats now being let loose upon the administration, it is fitting that the House of Commons, through such a committee, should be watchful and informed.
The central problem tackled (and firmly tackled) by the committee is the problem of control. They seek to answer the old but delicate question, Quis custodiet . . .? Like so many of our institutions, our Civil Service has evolved by cellular processes. In the eighteenth century a Secretary of State would gather around him a small group of clerks and scriveners, whose tenure of their posts was transitory and whose experience was slight. Only gradually did the permanent official emerge, and even today the conception of a corporate and co-ordinated Civil Service has not ousted the older separatist doctrines or the older purely departmental loyalties and organisation. Each Government office has, in the course of ages, evolved its own conception of discipline, its own particular manner of conducting business, even its own system of indexing, accountancy and filing. The Foreign Office, for instance, for long regarded itself as a family business, and retained until 19o7 the eighteenth-century method of dealing with its papers. A telegram or a despatch was folded into three and the dockets and minutes were written on the back in neat handwriting, the resulting files being bound together by tape until they assumed the semblance of lawyers' briefs. The typewriter came to abolish this system, and under the reforms intro- duced by Lord Hardinge and Sir Eyre Crowe a new system of filing (subsequently reversed by Lord Curzon) was introduced and perfected. Yet I doubt whether even today a uniform system of filing and cross-indexing exists in every department, nor would any standardised system in Tact be desirable. Each department should adopt the system most suited to its different needs. * * * * Some centralised control is, however, essential, and the Select Committee, after careful consideration, recommend that this control should be exercised by the Treasury. This is certainly desirable. If any hierarchy exists among Government offices, then assuredly the Treasury has the right to claim priority. It is not only that the Prime Minister, in his capacity of First Lord, is titular head of the Treasury as well as of the Government. It is that the
Treasury by custom and usage is rightly regarded as the cream of the Civil Service, and is the branch for which those who obtain the highest marks in the examination most usually opt. It may well be that other Government departments question the right of the Treasury to any pre-eminence ; but it is assuredly the fact that they would with even greater insistence deny that right to any other branch of the Service. The Select Committee recommends that the controlling position of the Treasury should be more expressly recognised, and that for this purpose the authority and prestige of the Organisation and Methods Division should be enhanced. Similar Divisions should be created in every Department of State in order that proper liaison and comparisons may be maintained. These are reasonable suggestions. They might well have been resisted by the older departments in pre-war years. But the estab- lished Civil Servants (who arc a reasonable brand of men) are them- selves alarmed by the present influx of amateurs, and might welcome the assistance of some co-ordinated organisation by which the traditions of the Service could be promulgated and enforced. The problem of extending this control to local authorities and organisa- tions will remain. Bureaucracy today is an octopus which stretches its tentacles far beyond the governmental machine.
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As a former Civil Servant, I am particularly delighted with the recommendation that some sort of Staff College should be created, through- which the more ambitious Civil Servant, after, say, ten years of service, should have the opportunity to pass. It is a matter of regret, for instance, that the admirable reforms initiated by Mr. Anthony Eden in the Foreign Service make no provision for this, to my mind, absolutely essential sieve. No person can have any experience of administration without becoming convinced that an entrance examination is not enough. Civil Servants, as other organisms, flower at different dates. The brilliant scholar can sweep all examinations before him and bloom like the crocus in the front of March ; other less garish growths may show but dull heads in spring-time, but may burst into radiance after June. A man who passes easily at twenty into the administrative division may by the age of thirty have damped off sadly and be suitable only for purely clerical work ; conversely, a boy who passes only into the lower division may in years develop administrative ability which entitles him unquestionably to the higher grade. If equality of opportunity means anything at all, it means that each individual should rise or fall according to his own capacity. Under our present system, once the initial examination has been passed, it is in practice difficult either to rise or fall. Every Civil Servant should have a second chance ; to each one of them the opportunity should be accorded to become a member of the elite. And a Staff College is the best and fairest means of providing such an opportunity.
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It is evident that the Select Committee realises that, however necessary and opportune may be its present recommendations, these may share the fate of the MacDonnell, the Haldane, the Bradbury and the Tomlin reports. It is suggested, therefore, that a comniittee of the House should be regularly chosen to watch the machinery of government, and that this committee should be provided with a permanent official, or Assessor, empowered to call for papers and exercising continuous vigilance upon the methods and organisation of the Civil Service as a whole. It would clearly be a mistake were any Parliamentary Committee to be constituted for the purpose of nagging at the Civil Service or exposing it to illegitimate interference cr control. That, however, is not the intention. The intention Is to provide Parliament, and therefore the country, with a Watching Committee, which shall see to it that bureaucracy remains the servant and does not become the master of the State; to see that the tradi- tions of our Civil Service are maintained ; and to secure that the Service itself remains in continuous contact with the people whom it so admirably serves. That is a correct intention.