By Ray Fleming

ALTHOUGH they do not always know this, ministers are the main obstacle to an “efficient” civil service. That is why attempts to bring private sector skills into the public service so seldom succeed. Reforms that are obvious to someone from the business world often overlook the essential point that the business in which ministers are engaged is first and foremost politics - not making a profit or offering a superior service but making sure that one's policies and actions can be defended against parliamentary, media or public criticism and, so far as is possible, carry no political risk whatsoever.

To say this is not to criticise the political process in a democracy, but to point out that it is fundamentally different from the process of running a company and making money. As the truth of this begins to dawn on businessmen who arrive In Whitehall to shake things up, they tend to lose interest and slip away taking their new peerage with them.

These thoughts are occasioned by the appointment of Lord Browne, the former head of BP , as a “super-director” with the task of injecting a “business ethos” into Whitehall. The Cabinet minister Francis Maude said Lord Browne “will galvanise departmental boards as forums where political and official leadership is brought together to drive up performance.” We shall see. For the moment, the choice of Lord Browne, whose famous efficiency drives at BP are often said to be the main reason for the company's dreadful safety record, seems questionable.

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