Knowledge Management in the Treasury

Douglas Carswell MP discusses here the problem presented by a self-serving Civil Service.

Institutional self-preservation is a universal amongst institutions, and so needs to be discounted in any policies emanating from them. Every quangocrat will explain, with good reason, why their particular quango actually does a good job, and if it didn’t exercise its responsibilities the world would probably collapse. And civil servants like to think that they do a better job than politicians of running the country – which on the whole, they do: since a politician can always be reshuffled or voted out of his job (the former being much more likely),  policy knowledge stays in the Civil Service. Mostly.

But in some departments, it doesn’t – particularly the Treasury. I picked up some insight into this while giving someone who used to work in the Treasury’s knowledge-management function a lift back to London from a weekend music festival (not quite a man in the pub… ). KM, or knowledge management, is yet another activity focused on the active dehumanisation of work – like “human resources” itself. Most organisations have big repositories of knowledge in the heads of the people who work there – it’s why it makes sense for knowledge-based professions, like the law, to be run as partnerships rather than joint-stock companies. But this makes the organisation vulnerable to people leaving, so the aim of KM is to get the knowledge out of the heads of the professionals into some sort of filing system. This way, you don’t need the long formal and informal apprenticeships and you don’t rely on people who know stuff, because the stuff is in the system not with the people.  Anyway, you can see why organisations invest in KM  (and why the big law firms have been big investors in it, because all the big law firms’ partners are hoping that soon they will be able to incorporate, float and make gazillions in an IPO), but I can’t help feeling that they would do better to invest in people.

Apparently, though, the Treasury has a serious need for efficient KM, because people are always leaving. The Treasury recruits bright young graduates in the milk-round from the top universities, and fast-tracks them but still on Civil Service pay scales. As soon as they’ve done a year or two, they tout their CVs round the City and are snapped up by the banks for much more money. There are a few senior managers who have served their time and risen to the level of their incompetence, but no marzipan layer of bright, experienced and ambitious people (because they are all earning much more than the Treasury could pay).  And it has been known for Treasury ministers to bawl out junior civil servants who produce failed old policies as new solutions – in other words, the Minister knows more about the brief than the civil servant.

Ideally, the Treasury should sort out its recruitment and retention, but how? While the banks can still pay so much money, recruitment is always going to go in their direction. Politically, it would be impossible to pay middle-ranking Treasury civil servants bankers’ bonuses and bankers’ salaries, so it must fall back to KM. But surely, all that internal Treasury knowledge is actually ours? So we should be able to read it, shouldn’t we?

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