David Davis MP: Why are civil servants running rings round the Coalition? Because it doesn't know its own mind
There is little new in Whitehall, least of all Steve Hilton’s revelations to Californian students about this Government’s difficulties with the civil service.
It is odd that the problems he complained of were any surprise at all to a Government led largely by ex-special advisers, who you might think were well-used to civil service shenanigans.
My first ministerial post was in the Cabinet Office, the High Command of the “Yes, Minister” tendency in Whitehall. So perhaps it should have been no surprise when on my first day I opened my diary to find it full of junk – matters of interest only to my mandarins and of little use to the aims of the government.
So my first decision was easy – “Cancel it all”, I said as I handed the diary to my slightly shocked private secretary. Thus started a slightly tumultuous year of teaching the department that its job was to deliver the government’s agenda, not its own. I was helped greatly by the support of my boss William Waldegrave and, to be fair, by some rather talented civil servants who liked to have a real sense of political direction.
He proceeded to read out a list of virtually every decision I had reversed, cancelled or overruled in the previous year. He took great amusement in upholding every decision I had taken, no doubt to the chagrin of the civil servants.
So Mr Hilton’s trials and tribulations are not new. But they have got worse.
There was, throughout the Blair years, a serious corrosion of the standards of the Civil Service. It started with the now infamous Order in Council, allowing political appointees, in the form of Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, to give orders to civil servants.
It was exacerbated by the extension of payment by results and bonus systems throughout Whitehall, a move quite properly resisted by one Cabinet Secretary because it undermined the vital impartiality of our senior mandarins. Along with a lot of other managerial mumbo jumbo, it eroded their famous independence without improving their efficiency one jot.
There were a number of more subtle changes that altered the balance of power between ministers and mandarins. For example, there used to be a rule that you could not become a Permanent Secretary unless you had first served in a ministerial private office. This meant that ministers were well served, because competition for jobs in their offices was fierce, and because the whole department treated their Private Secretary very seriously. Now that rule appears to have gone, and as a result both competence and clout has drained from ministerial offices.
So the problem has got worse, to the point that the reality has overtaken the “Yes, Minister” caricature. The comedy has become the training film.
It is also exacerbated by the nature of the current government. Some of it is caused by the inevitable fact that it is extremely inexperienced. The weaker the minister, the stronger the civil service. The initial inexperience was unavoidable, but it was unnecessarily worsened by the last reshuffle of the middle ranks. The new appointments were generally fine, except that it was associated with an extraordinary cull of some of the most competent Ministers of State.
There is also an undoubtedly careless air about the central management of this government.
The virtually endless run of u-turns, typically after Downing Street has approved something and then vacillated under fire from a hostile press, has done nothing for the internal balance of power. The ridiculous belief - shared by both this government and its Blairite predecessor - that government is essentially managerial, about pulling the levers on some vast command and control system, also makes the problem worse. And in that lies the answer.
The governments that are most successful in making Whitehall work for them all share one thing - a very clear sense of political direction. So, famously one of the Cabinet Ministers in Atlee’s post-war government summoned his permanent secretary on the first day in office, threw the Labour manifesto onto the table, and said “That is the Department’s purpose and policy from now on, and that is what I expect you to deliver!”
Similarly, there was never any doubt under Margaret Thatcher that Number 10’s writ ran in Whitehall. It did not matter whether it is left or right; so long as the direction is clear, Whitehall can deliver. It is less good at following the uncertain trumpet, which may be inevitable in a coalition.
Again, I witnessed this first hand. I inherited a strongly Europhile department at the Foreign Office, and I had to tell them in no uncertain terms that whilst I was happy to listen to their arguments, ministers would make the decisions.
They might reasonably have been expected to be difficult. In truth they were brilliant. On my last day in office, I received a handwritten letter from our Ambassador to Europe. “You shook us up when you arrived,” it read, “but you were right to do so.”
So Steve Hilton had a partial point when he complained about Whitehall. But even today it is still one of the most impartial, least corrupt government machines in the world. Whether it is a Rolls Royce still, or now merely a Jaguar, I do not know. But what Mr Hilton needs to remember is that either car will get you to your destination, so long as the driver knows where he is going.