This column first appeared in the Isle of Man Examiner of June 7.
The unfair dismissal of the health service whistleblower Dr Rosalind Ranson may prove to be a tipping point for the island’s public sector.
It has certainly provided an opportunity for the Chief Minister to position himself as the man who finally sorts out the civil service.
Alf Cannan’s initial response to the controversy was notable for going far beyond the employment policy parameters of the Ranson case.
Speaking at the May Tynwald he announced a ‘process of fundamental and wide ranging reform across the public sector’.
The status quo could not be retained, he declared. Government had to become ‘a more focussed, professional and streamlined organisation’.
Mr Cannan acknowledged staff efforts but added: ‘There have been too many issues over too many years to feel comfortable.’
He did not explain what these issues were, or how they were relevant to the present case. But he was clearly talking about public sector cock-ups.
The Chief Minister was tapping into the popular perception that most government departments are incompetently run by unaccountable bureaucrats.
As if to underline the message that the game was changing, his statement was followed by an unprecedented exodus of very senior officers.
What sounded like heads rolling got Mr Cannan’s revolution off to a crowd-pleasing start, but it is difficult to predict where it will end. We do not know if he has a coherent plan or is just following his political instincts.
There is no evidence so far that the sudden zeal for reform is based on a careful analysis of structural and systemic problems. However, the Tynwald statement did point to the potential solutions that will be explored.
Some changes are already in hand, including the Cannan scheme for the appointment of ‘non-executive ministerial advisers’ from outside of government. This radical proposal treads heavily on the toes of senior civil servants, and is a recipe for either fresh thinking or dysfunctional confusion at the top of departments.
Curiously, the shocking outcome of one employment tribunal seems to have converted the Chief Minister into a believer in smaller, more efficient government.
This did not feature as a significant theme in the Island Plan approved in February this year, yet only four months later Mr Cannan was telling his colleagues that government was ‘too big and unwieldy.’
So ministers will revisit shelved proposals for the ‘arm’s length’ corporatisation of certain operations, the prime candidate for such detachment being Ronaldsway airport.
Meanwhile the phasing out of the Department for Enterprise, leaving its business agencies as autonomous units, would be an obvious opportunity for conspicuous downsizing.
But perhaps the most likely result of the review process is a stronger centre for government, with more control over its unruly component parts and maybe the disappearance of departments as we know and love them.
Cue the return to the political agenda of the Single Legal Entity (SLE). This is not a concept that sets tongues wagging down the pub, but its introduction would make a big difference to the way government operates.
The public may see the Isle of Man Government as one organisation, but in law it is no such thing. The sovereign body is the individual department, each the fiefdom of its minister and chief executive. What we think of as ‘the government’ is actually a loose confederation of these rival independent territories.
Moving to the SLE would make government one body in law, with departments becoming sub-divisions of the new corporate entity. The status of ministers and their chief officers would be reduced, which may explain previous resistance to the proposal. Now, with a new Council of Ministers and very few permanent chief executive officers in post, it might be easier to achieve.
The idea of the SLE is that removing internal legal barriers encourages joined-up working across the public sector, leading to more effective delivery of services. That makes sense, but it could also create a hierarchical, top-down structure and a central discipline that is alien to Manx political culture.
The dominance of the centre may not be accepted as legitimate unless it gains greater authority through a stronger mandate from the electorate. Which could mean some form of public input into the selection of the Chief Minister, either directly or indirectly.
For it is the politicians who are ultimately responsible for the performance of government, not the public servants who are such convenient scapegoats when things go wrong.
Sometimes, believe it or not, operational chaos is caused by political interference, politicians making bad decisions or being unable to make any decision at all. This boardroom background is usually less visible than its consequences.
Politicians can be incompetent too, and are often unaccountable for their work inside government. When MHKs lose their seats it is generally for constituency reasons, not due to their performance at a national level.
There are many good and dedicated public servants in all areas of government. The organisation as whole, though, is prone to self-indulgence, over-promotion and the pursuit of internal agendas. Like its political supervisors, it has traditionally lacked corporate discipline and direction.
Yes, the civil service in particular is in need of reform. But its troubles are an argument for a better civil service, not a weaker one. Ministers still need clear independent advice from people with knowledge and experience of the public sector, which is a different planet from the world outside of government.
The Chief Minister will hopefully remember that one of the causes of the Ranson calamity was a failure to respect the relevant professional expertise.