Yes, Minister. It’s Utopia. 

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
24 November, 2023

One of my grad school professors recommended Yes, Minister for better understanding the British public service.  

The series was superb. Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby wanted the public service left to its own devices, regardless of incoming Minister Jim Hacker’s preferences. 

Each episode seemed to feature a different lesson from our seminars in Public Choice – the branch of economics that studies political decision-making. 

One of the show’s writers later revealed that public choice theory had been an inspiration. And that they had always run scripts past appropriate sources. Some plots were inspired by those insiders’ stories. 

Yes, Minister
has a darker successor. It feels bleaker because it seems closer to local reality. 

Australian series
Utopia, almost a decade old now but a more recent find on Netflix, follows the ‘fictional’ Nation Building Authority.  

NBA Chief Executive Tony desperately wants to build sensible infrastructure projects and to block costly boondoggles. His Operations Manager, Nat, is superbly competent. 

But even the ideal public servants have little chance. 

The Minister wants announceables, regardless of whether anything is ever delivered. So the NBA suffers a whirlwind of changing Ministerial priorities. If the big project that will take years to complete was announced last month, why hasn’t anything been announced this month? Just announce something and backfill the details later. 

The few competent NBA staff are hamstrung. Every rebranding, team-building exercise, or website re-imagining pushed by political operatives is a perfect reason for the team to fail to accomplish anything. Process must be followed to every absurd conclusion. Incompetent staff cannot be fired or even encouraged to do their jobs. But they can be promoted to other agencies. 

The true face of public sector evil isn’t Sir Humphrey. Beverly, from the NBA’s HR Department, is the stuff nightmares are made of.

’s writers seem worryingly well-informed about Australia’s public sector. I understand it also makes uncomfortable viewing for Wellington’s lanyard-wearers.  

And it seemed to predict much of what Dominic Cummings later said about his time as Chief Advisor to the British Prime Minister. 

’s public sector is fundamentally darker than Yes, Minister’s. If real need arose, Sir Humphrey could mobilise the public sector. Utopia’s would invent new public sector logos while the world burned around them, ignoring the futile pleading of those who wish for better but have no agency. 

An incoming government should watch both carefully – and then change the script.

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