A CIVIL SERVICE INQUEST -I
By THOMAS LODGE*
HERE can be no more pertinent subject of discussion today than British administration—in other words the Civil Service and its work. In the last war, Great Britain had the most efficient administrative machine, Germany not excluded, \vhich the world has yet seen. With the advent of the Liberal Government of 1905, there was the beginning of a real change in the whole conception of the functions of government in this island. 'For the first time a governing class, not content with tinkering here and there, began consciously to plan the trans- formation of the social life of the country. I do not pretend to know the real source of the inspiration of this planning. It may have been mainly due to the inherent virtue of Liberal politicians, but I doubt this. It is more probable that the credit belongs to some of the distinguished, if anonymous, civil servants of the day, and should be shared with some equally distinguished outsiders. What is quite certain is that the suc- cessful working-out of the policy was facilitated, and perhaps was only made possible, by the existence of a body of young enthusiastic administrators.
Once it was realised that an Allied victory could only be achieved at the cost of a total national effort—say about the beginning of 1916—the British civil service achieved something in the realm of organisation for which there is no parallel in England. It faced the completely new problems of a nation- wide control of munition-production, food-distribution, and transport, and it devised satisfactory solutions for all these problems. It is impossible to exaggerate the contribution to victory made by men like Arthur Salter and John Anderson —to mention only members of the department with which I was myself associated. What is remarkable is that the founda- tion of the work was laid before a dire necessity had arisen. No one would underrate the part played by the business world in the solution of these problems, but it is no exaggeration to say that all the fundamental thinking required for the civil war- organisation was done by a group of men, none of whom was much more than 35 when the war broke out, and most of whom were younger. The majority of these men were professional civil servants. A few, including some the ablest, like Keynes and Layton, were technically outside the service, but they will perhaps forgive an ex-bureaucrat if he claims them as essentially of the administrative mind.
It would be idle to ignore the fact that there is today a wide- spread feeling that in energy and grip the civil service adminis- tration of this generation lags far behind the administration of the last. I have seen, at close quarters and from the outside, various aspects of this administration, and I share to the full this feeling of misgiving. In some of these episodes I have been an interested party, and my opinion on the rightness or wrongness of decisions has no great value. My quarrel is not with individual decisions ; it is with the negative attitude of mind in which the problems have been approached. It would not be too much to say that the instinctive impulse of the average civil servant„ when faced with a practical but novel proposal, is to search for reasons not for acting but for not acting. I cannot but feel that this negative attitude of our administrators, political and professional, has contributed largely [* Mr. Lodge was a civil servant for fifteen years, entering the Board of Trade in 1905 and becoming Secretary to the Ministry of Shipping in 1919. He left the service in Isszo to enter business-life.] to bringing about the calamity which has overwhelmed u& Let me take a particular example—again one with • which I happen to be personally familiar. Seven years ago, Great Britain forswore all the principles of democracy to which our statesmen pay homage in their most eloquent after-dinner speeches. She was a party to depriving a self-governing Dominion, Newfoundland, of every vestige of political freedom. She assumed for her own taxpayers a fresh £20 million burden. It was a decision which did a lot of credit to our hearts if not to our heads, but surely one which called for sustained positive attention on the part of those who considered themselves ulti- mately responsible. Yet, during the three years for which I can speak with knowledge (for I was for that time a member of the Commission of Government) no attempt was ever made by the Dominions Office authorities to discuss the basic prob- lems with the Commission. It was not that, having appointed a Commission, they were content to throw the real responsi- bility on to their creatures. Indeed, they laid down that no single decision by these creatures could be held to be exempt from their review and revision, even months after the event. Fundamentally, all the Dominions Office wanted was peace and quiet, et surtout pas de zele. If the Commission wanted one thing one year, well and good. If they wanted the opposite the following year, still well and good. If a Commissioner inveighed against a particular appointee as administratively half- witted, the answer was "not half-witted—limited, if you like," and that ended the matter. The desire quieta non movere (not that the situation in the Commission's offices was particu- larly quiet) was characteristic of the civil service—though, I readily admit, there were and are notable exceptions.
Another example, which concerns Newfoundland only inci- dentally, but the vital shipping-problem essentially. In the autumn of last year, the harbour of St. John's was littered with idle ships. The most superficial observer could see that the facilities of the port were not being fully used. At intervals the voice of the Minister of Shipping could be heard across the ether, urging the paramount necessity for economy in tonnage. I told the Governing Commission (of which I had ceased to be a member) what I thought, more crudely than suavely, and I got the reply: The Ministry of Shipping have their own repre- sentative here, and it isn't our business. And when I undiplo- matically pressed the matter, I was told, what I have no reason to doubt, that even if the local authorities did make themselves disagreeable, all they would get would be a snub from the Dominions Office.
For nearly eighteen months now I have been suggesting to the Ministry of Supply, with quite unambiguous clarity, that the financial policy of one of its control departments has been inexpedient, if not worse. Even if it is contended that, in this matter, I am a prejudiced party, the Comptroller and Auditor- General is not. Anybody who reads the latest report by that officer, and who understands the meaning of the language of understatement which characterises so much official literature, will hardly fail to conclude that there is some suspicion at Audit House. My complaints do not elicit an indignant and peremptory demand to cease maligning a most worthy class who are fully entitled to their commissions, even if those commissions are far in excess of anything earned before the war. What they elicit is : "I have a number of letters from you to which I find it difficult to give very explicit answers," and there the matter is supposed to end. It may, of course, be that my own experience is unfortunate and unique, and that really everything is for the best in the best of all adminis- trative worlds. But so far as one can judge, Great Britain, if not the British Empire, a year ago came within an ace of irreparable disaster, and, if she has escaped the worst, has still very disagreeable experiences to go through. To the un- pleasantness of those experiences the negative official mind has contributed in a very important degree.
It requires very little inside knowledge to be aware that, towards such proposals as those made before the war for building up stocks of essential and non-perishable commodities, the attitude of the officials has been steadily obstructive. It is no answer to say that this was a matter of policy, and, by tradition, civil servants are not responsible. That would no doubt have been an adequate answer a generation ago, when the main function of Government departments was to administer specific laws in a nearly perfect world. The doctrine of a non-responsible bureaucracy loses its validity wh:n what is expected of that bureaucracy is the conscious shaping of social and economic development. For good or ill, main outlines of major policy are now thought out and determined by the directing civil servants, even if those outlines have sub-. sequently to be approved by the politicians. Nobody will persuade me that any enterprise, whether it is the administra- tion of a great Empire, or the running of a village shop, can be successfully conducted, if failure is attended by no dis- agreeable consequences to anybody. During the last genera- tion, the politician has, in practice, if not in theory, managed to wriggle out of much of his special responsibility. As the overriding consideration is that the King's Government must be carried on, and carried on properly, the civil servant will have to step into the breach, and at any rate bear part of the responsibility for success or failure. I am fully aware that this is heresy, but, after all, the heresy of one era has not seldom been the platitude of the next.