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Andrew Haldenby: Yes, Ministers need to reform Whitehall. But they're going the wrong way about it.

Andrew Haldenby is Director of Reform.  Follow Reform on Twitter“Whitehall reform: the view from the inside” is available at

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 09.38.46Whitehall reform was not on the agenda of the Conservative Party in Opposition.  When Francis Maude became Minister for the Cabinet Office in 2010, he actually said that he wanted to defend Whitehall, for example by banning the use of consultants who were taking the most interesting jobs away from officials.  At late as March last year, David Cameron mounted a firm defence of the status quo when he discussed the issue with the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons.

Now the mood has changed entirely.  Francis Maude has been transformed into an ardent advocate of change.  Ministers are putting a great deal pressure on Whitehall to update itself, under the banner of the Civil Service Reform Plan published last June.

45 research interviews published today by the think tank Reform shine some light on the reasons for the change of heart.  Ministers, Shadow Ministers, Special Advisers, officials and Non-Executive Directors of government departments all identify two basic causes for the inadequate performance of Whitehall departments.  The first is a style of employment and career planning which rotates people between roles too frequently. Here is a quote from a Coalition Minister:

“There is a difficulty in tying success and failure to individual responsibility within the organisation. This is quite unlike successful private sector organisations where people are given a project and unless they are clearly cocking up they’re allowed to see it through to the end and their future career doesn’t depend on this. I had examples of projects that were going quite badly wrong and needed to be put right and I’d get a team in and they’d say, ‘Oh Minister, I’ve only just taken over a month ago and the person who was responsible has moved on to do x,’ and that isn’t very satisfactory because it makes it difficult to objectively judge the capacity of the Civil Service to deliver.”


The second is a failure to act on performance, whether to penalise poor performance or reward the good. In some cases the system actively rewards poor performers i.e. when officials are promoted simply in order to move them out of their current roles.     As the National Audit Office reported last year, for example, the disastrous cancelling of the InterCity West Coast Main Line franchise was due to an absence of “strong project and programme management” and a “considerable turnover in departmental senior positions”.

Ministers are therefore right to demand change.  But their Plan is not the change that is needed.  It actually defends the rotation of officials on the grounds that it advances “the needs and priorities of the Department”.  It promises a new rigour on civil service performance on the basis on new information, but as one official makes clear, that is nothing new:

“Right now there is no consequence of the performance management system. We collect reams of information, we just don’t do anything with it.”

The Plan’s key error is to leave Civil Service reform to Whitehall itself.  The experience of successive Governments show that it cannot be trusted to do this.  Rather wonderfully, the NAO has just reported that the latest government project with problems of implementation is the Civil Service Reform Plan itself.  The Major Projects Authority has just given it an “amber-red” warning light for “delivery risk”.  In the Reform interviews, senior officials said that the Plan had made no practical difference to their working lives.

Change has to be driven and it has to be driven by Ministers. The other key finding of the Reform interviews is there is no concerted push to improve the workings of government from Ministers and from the Prime Minister.  Here is one Minister:

“The efficient running of a government department has no bearing on their [Ministerial] career prospects. A Minister is interested in the media, how they do in Parliament, the next reshuffle. The stuff around making a department run properly is long term, there’s no political upside. The Prime Minister doesn’t say, ‘Well done!’ So if you wanted Ministers to engage in the process properly you’d need to send a much clearer signal that this is something that is valued.”

It is essential that Ministers have the power to appoint Permanent Secretaries in order to drive change and hold them to account.  But this is not enough in itself.  They also have to accept a new political objective which is the excellent running of their departments.  The Prime Minister has a central role to play by selecting and promoting Ministers partly on their ability to achieve this.  He has to leave them in post so that they can be accountable for performance just as officials should be.  He has to set a tone in which line management of Ministers is just as important as party management.

The last word goes to a reforming Minister of the previous administration:

“You cannot reform the Civil Service without support within the Cabinet where the majority of the Ministers need to be in favour of the reform and a large chunk of the Opposition party are in favour of reform. Otherwise the top echelons of the Civil Service will just outwait you.”

The temptation for any Party is to defend Whitehall against its current political masters.  What is actually needed is a coalition for change which stretches across party lines and which includes the many officials that feel stifled by Whitehall’s current working culture.


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