The news that the government might need to hire hundreds of immigrants to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals isn’t merely a delightful irony. It raises a serious question about the UK’s state capacity.
This refers (pdf) to the ability of governments to implement policies to achieve their objectives. Although it is usually discussed (pdf) in the context of less developed nations, it applies to the UK government now. Does it have the capacity to negotiate difficult trade deals, or to implement complex points-based immigration controls? The fact that we lack people capable of doing the former suggests perhaps not.
In fact, other things should strengthen our scepticism on this point. Larry Summers once wrote that "it is much easier to design policy than to implement it." The British government’s failure to introduce Universal Credit in a timely or cost-effective manner, and its mismanagement of the deportation of foreign students (in the “safe pair of hands” of Theresa May) give us two examples of this fact.
These, though, might be just specific manifestations of general defects. Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon have shown (pdf) how the endless management reforms of the last 30 years have given us a civil service which “worked a bit worse and cost a bit more” than before. Giles Wilkes has written:
Much of the time, Whitehall throngs with officials struggling just to find out what is going on. The sound of dysfunction is not the cacophony of argument, but the silence of suppressed documents and unreturned phone calls.
And a report from the Institute for Government says:
Departments are inconsistent in how they format and organise their objectives. They confuse measures, milestones and means of reaching them. The inconsistency across departments and the sheer number of objectives questions how useful and usable they are – and crucially, whether they are actually being used to measure performance.
This suggests that government is failing to implement the Bloom and Van Reenen idea that management is a form of technology (pdf), in which there are clear targets, monitoring and feedback.
It is appropriate that I should be writing this in the week that the Chilcott report is finally published. Its massive delays remind us that complex tasks often take much longer than expected, in part because of the planning fallacy.
All this should add to our scepticism about whether Brexit can proceed smoothly, even ignoring (which we shouldn’t) the legal technicalities and arguments. I fear that Brexiteers’ optimism on this point reflects what I’ve called cargo cult leadership: the “right leader-????-success” fallacy.
And herein lies another delightful irony. Many right-wingers have for years preached the virtues of small government and been sceptical of what the state can achieve. And yet it is now they who are placing massive and perhaps excessive demands upon the competence of the state.