The decay at the heart of the civil service

8 December 2021

10:50 PM

8 December 2021

10:50 PM

That Britain no longer has the capability to maintain peace in Afghanistan other than as an appendage of the United States has been clear for decades. When President Biden made his decision to hurriedly withdraw from the country, then, Britain never had an option to do anything other than to join a messy evacuation.

But at the very least we owed it to those Afghans who helped us during two decades of occupation to save as many as we could from the murderous clutches of the advancing Taliban. The testimony of a 25-year-old former junior officer in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) shows just how far short we failed.

Indeed, written evidence presented to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee shows up the extent of the institutional decay of the British state. The effort involved few officials with any knowledge of Afghanistan and exposed a workshy culture within the civil service where the work-life balance of staff was allowed to rule over the interests of people caught up in a looming emergency. As the 31 August deadline approached staff were discouraged from working more than eight hours a shift – apparently on the basis that it could ‘pressure’ other employees to do overtime, too. Many staff were still refusing to come into the office, long after all had had the chance to be vaccinated and Covid restrictions had been lifted.

Britain was never going to be able to evacuate all Afghans who had helped Britain during the years of occupation and who had reason to fear for their lives as the Taliban returned. But we could and should have mounted a far better effort. According to Raphael Marshall, who has since resigned from what he had hoped would be a long career at the FCDO, between 75,000 and 150,000 Afghans applied for help under the Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) scheme, and fewer than 5 per cent received any assistance. Worse, thousands of emails at a time were not read, with the few staff on duty unable to cope with the volume. At one point during the critical few days in which it was possible to evacuate people from Kabul, Marshall says he was the only officer looking at the Afghan special cases inbox.

As so often the case with our creaking public services, the government resorted to calling in the armed forces to undertake a job which civilian staff seemed unable to do. Yet soldiers assigned to the task found it difficult to operate as they were made to share a single computer between eight. Most shamefully of all, Afghans in serious danger of being murdered by the Taliban were left behind as the army was instructed instead to use its limited resources to aid the evacuation of staff and pets from an animal sanctuary. This was in spite of it being known that neither the staff nor the animals were in danger of being targeted by the Taliban – a US-run animal sanctuary is still happily operating in Kabul, its staff allowed to get on with their work. Many Afghans who were targeted by the Taliban are, on the other hand, believed to have been murdered.

The FCDO must not be allowed escape from the very serious litany of failure identified by its employee-turned-whistleblower, and neither should the wider civil service be allowed to escape reform. It is 12 years since Digby Jones – hardly a Gradgrind or unbridled capitalist – emerged from a spell as a minister in Gordon Brown’s government to declare his astonishment at lax working practices in the civil service. While he described it as ‘stuffed full of decent people who work hard’ he also remarked at how many incompetent staff had been allowed to continue in their jobs because the threat of the sack simply didn’t exist, and people who couldn’t cope with their jobs were simply moved sideways. Were the civil service a private organisation he had no doubt how he would have managed it: by reducing the number of staff by half.

Too little has been done to change the culture of the organisation in the years since. While there was a reduction in headcount during the years of the coalition, since 2017 numbers have crept up inexorably in the years since, increasing by 28,470 to 484,880 in the past year alone. Moreover, there has been rampant job title inflation, with the proportion of civil servants in senior roles increasing from just over 50 per cent to 70 per cent in the past decade. There seems little inclination to learn from the private sector about how to run large and complex organisations ever more efficiently.

It is shocking how inflexible the FCDO was when faced with a crisis. Marshall says that at the time the evacuation began he had been learning Arabic – a very useful skill for a foreign office official, but surely an activity which could easily be suspended during an emerging crisis. Yet he says he had to volunteer to help with the evacuation effort – he would have been left with his Arabic books otherwise.

The civil service does not like being criticised, nor being told it must reform. Whenever it is criticised, officials tend to assert that they have a ‘public service ethos’, thereby implying that they are working at a higher moral level than their counterparts in private industry. An insider’s view of the chaos and half-heartedness which ruled within the FCDO during the Afghan evacuation crisis has blown that conceit apart. This was a period when the civil service had chance to show itself off at its best – and failed miserably.

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