Civil Service Bonuses

Nothing illustrates better the reason for the British people’s disgust at the behaviour of the bureaucracy than the decision to award Oliver Robbins, until last Tuesday the UK’s de facto chief Brexit negotiator, a bonus of about 10% of his annual salary in 2017.

Time was that civil servants got their salaries, exceptionally generous pensions and a very generous ration of senior honours (see SFB posts, 23rd July 2011, 28th June 2012 and Horatio post 9th February 2017). Now they get bonuses for “performance levels and are made as part of our appraisal process which has an independent (sic) chair and a robust process” according to this semi-literate statement from 10 Downing Street on Thursday 19th July.

Misuse of the word “independent”

Robbins has certainly done a spectacularly successful job of impeding a proper Brexit, but I doubt if Number 10 means that. We should, however, focus on the word “independent” so often used about official appointments.

Basically “independent” means, in their eyes, someone who is part of the official establishment, but not actually in the section where the person being assessed works. The procedure was brilliantly captured by Anthony Jay in several episodes of “Yes Minister and “Yes Prime Minister” 30 years ago. Thus, honours are assessed by a committee for each of nine areas of British life: the Arts, Science, Government, Business, Politics, Charity, etc. The committees are all chaired by people from the nine areas. Obviously, you have to have chair-people who are knowledgeable about an area, but they don’t have to earn their livings in that area. Some well-deserved honours have been made over the years of course, but many have the appearance of deriving from what C P Snow once characterised as a system which rewards not so much true distinction as one in which “senior people in a field confer distinctions on each other”.  Nowhere is this more true than in the administrative grade of the Civil Service (see references above)

Two Simple Easy-to-do Reforms

(1) The chairmanship of a bonus-awarding committee for a given area should be vested in someone from a field where an individual’s performance is actually measured, e.g. profits in a business, prizes (national or international) won, innovations achieved.

(2) Civil Honours bearing a title (e.g. knighthoods) should be awarded only to those with an international reputation in their field.

The bonus for Oliver Robbins is clearly absurd – not only are the negotiations not completed, but he has been instrumental in taking them in completely wrong directions – over the so-called common market “rule book”, the totally invented problem of the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border, the acceptance of a ludicrous £39 billion invoice for leaving the EU, and the decoupling of these three from an actual trade agreement, yet to be negotiated.

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