The suspension of three, presumably senior, civil servants as part of the fallout from the competition for the new West Coast Mainline rail franchise is worrying from the perspective of anyone who cares about good governance. And boy, has this one cost. £40 million is, given the fact that nothing has actually been purchased, an awful lot of money to pay for what, it is alleged, are pretty serious errors.
Naturally, elements of the media, egged on by Labour politicians, are looking for the head of a minister, and doubtless that will continue over the coming days. And, as usual, they're missing the big picture in search of a cheap headline.
There are three possibilities in terms of what has happened;
- The process of comparing bids, and the criteria to be applied, are just too complex. This is entirely possible but, when this was reviewed, one must presume that somebody thought that they were workable. Admittedly, just because someone thinks that they're workable, doesn't mean that they are, but then the blame probably lies with the drafters.
- The civil servants responsible for carrying out the evaluation of the bids got something wrong. This seems like the most likely possibility but begs the question, who was checking their work?
- The civil servants were, in some way, corrupt. I have to admit that this is extremely unlikely, although not completely impossible. In any process where profit might be made, the incentive to find an edge is obvious. However, public companies are very unlikely to find do something so risky, especially here (as opposed to certain less, how should I put it, ethically conscious jurisdictions), and the incidence of corruption amongst civil servants in this country is low by anyone's standards.
For some time, I have been concerned that, as consecutive governments have undermined the Civil Service, with real-term and comparative pay cuts, attacks on the ethos of public service, significant job losses and a lack of recruitment, the quality of public servants has declined.
Once upon a time, public service attracted the brightest and the best. No longer. Why work in Whitehall and take grief from the public and politicians, when you could doubtless earn more as a lawyer, banker or entrepreneur? So, people don't. Compounding this is the lack of recruitment in Government Departments that are shedding jobs. Naturally, sacking a bunch of people only to recruit new ones isn't likely to be attractive to potential newcomers anyway, nor is it cheap, but a recruitment freeze inevitably means that you miss out on cohorts of potential mandarins twenty years hence.
Politicians, you have been warned...