Andrew Haldenby: Civil service reform should be a first term issue
Here are two visions of 2012 which I hope will provoke you to read the report and decide just how important Whitehall reform is for the next Government – Conservative, renewed Labour, or indeed coalition.
The measures in the “2010 Civil Service Reform Act” described below are exactly those put forward in the Reform report today. This is not to say that Whitehall alone can solve the UK’s social and economic problems (far from it). But it is to say that any successful reforming Government will need to tackle Whitehall reform head-on and first up.
It is 2012. The Conservative Party has won the 2010 election with a majority of 16. As promised, education reform is the priority and the great hope of the new government. ConservativeHome readers are pinning their hopes on the creation of a wave of new schools and measures to reintroduce rigour and independence to qualifications.
But over the last six months it has become clear that reform is running into the sand. The reason is the obstruction of the newly renamed Department for Education and Standards. In meeting after meeting, senior officials have presented policy solutions that reinforce the status quo rather than offer radical change.
Michael Gove and Nick Gibb have done all that they can, to the extent of lobbying the Permanent Secretary to move one senior official to a different post. But it has not been enough.
Ministers have been tactfully told that the employment of civil servants is not their responsibility, and that in any case the disciplinary process for handling poor performance takes at least two years. Because poor performers can’t be moved, good performers can’t be moved into their jobs.
The time for reform is running out.
It is 2012. One of the first actions of the incoming Cameron Government was to form a cross party alliance on civil service reform. Conservative and Labour politicians realised that their experience in government had been the same – initial confidence that their electoral mandate would be enough to make a difference, followed by a dawning realisation that the government machine was not as competent as it needed to be.
As a result the Cameron Government passed – with Opposition support – the 2010 Civil Service Reform Act. This abolished the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility. Ministers were no longer responsible for everything that happened in their department, only for its strategic direction and the communication of policy. Ministers became able to appoint senior civil servants (with some positions, such as management of finance, protected from political control). Within departments, civil servants became personally responsible for their own performance, for the money that they spend and for the recruitment of their teams.
Michael Gove and Nick Gibb were able to crack on. In a series of open decisions, they moved certain senior officials and replaced them in some cases with other officials and in others with external appointments. An explicit sense of accountability led to a further shakeout in the junior ranks.
As a result the first New Conservative Academy had opened in September 2011 with dozens more in the pipeline. Children would take a new range of rigorous qualifications in June 2012. The logjam preventing education reform had been broken.
Conservatives should realise the degree of support among Labour Ministers and former Ministers for civil service reform. David Blunkett has spoken of the government machine as a series of “rubber levers” – Ministers pull them and nothing happens. Liam Byrne launched a new consultation on civil service reform two weeks ago and appeared at the launch of the Reform report yesterday. He argued, for example, that internal appointments to civil service positions should be the exception rather than the rule.
None of this implies that all officials are incompetent or obstructive. During this research we have spoken to excellent officials who are the model of what civil servants should be: acutely conscious of costs to the taxpayer and keen to be personally accountable for performance. But they do this despite the structure of the civil service, not because of it.
Where are the Conservatives now? In the early days of Opposition the Party was strongly against “politicisation” of the civil service, for example with a larger number of special advisers. That approach was wrong. Actually, Ministers do need to be able to hire and fire senior officials, on the model of Australia or France. But more importantly, the civil service is already politicised, albeit in a hidden and unsatisfactory way. Ministers can and do agree with Permanent Secretaries to get officials moved. Permanent Secretaries do seek to advance Ministers’ political careers. What is needed is to replace this imperfect politicisation with a transparent system that makes explicit the different responsibilities of senior civil servants and Ministers.
Three weeks ago, Francis Maude, Philip Hammond and George Osborne launched a consultation on civil service reform which proposed increasing the importance of the finance function within departments and giving all officials the duty to achieve value for money. These ideas are right but would not in themselves achieve the radical change of culture that is necessary.
Welcoming the Reform report yesterday, David Blunkett said that civil service reform is a cross-party issue:
“The issue of civil service reform is a critical one and I very much welcome the report. I am pleased that Reform is engaging all three main parties and addressing this issue head-on. Tony Blair once said that what is important is ‘Delivery’, ‘delivery, ‘delivery’. I hope that, working across party lines, we can now take this particular bull by the horns and challenge the status quo.”
I hope ConservativeHome readers take up these ideas in that spirit.