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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Britain's civil service can be great again

Relief all round. The Olympiad was preceded by a grumpiad. Many of my friends had been full of foreboding. They assumed that the Olympics would lead to gridlock, chaos and embarrassment. Not so, and we are even managing to win a few medals. Admittedly, we gave the French a start - so what? The same thing would happen when we used to play the Germans, but we won through in the end. Let us hope that there is a similar outcome this time, and that the head Frog croaked too soon.

Yet the initial nervousness is interesting: a further indication that our national self-confidence could do with some quantitative easing. We need to be better at believing in ourselves. This is not just about economics. Admittedly, the term "feel-good factor" is almost always employed in an economic context, and the public mood will remain overshadowed as long as so many people are worried about their jobs and their living standards. But there are other elements in play.

Over the past few decades, British institutions have come under sustained attack. Even the Monarchy has been assailed, often by covert republicans posing as constructive critics. They have now fallen silent - for the moment. But the Royal Family has proved more resilient than the House of Commons. With the possible exception of the bankers, our politicians have suffered the worst. Most MPs - of all parties - are decent people who work very hard for no large salary. The vast majority of Tory MPs are making a financial sacrifice to be in Parliament. Yet their prestige has been drastically undermined, as has their confidence. Instead of regulating its own affairs, the Commons has ceded power to officials. Often, the consequences are humiliating. The Fees Office may have been too premissive in the old days. Now, MPs complain that they and their staff, merely seeking to be reimbursed for normal office expenses, are treated as if they were Bob Cratchit up in front of Scrooge to explain a discrepancy of one farthing in the balance sheet.
So far, this has not had deleterious consequences, except upon individuals' morale. But it would be foolish to respond with a gloating "serve them right". If the sovereign people took that attitude, they would find that they themselves were no longer served right, because good people would be deterred from going into politics. At some stage, there will have to be a move to improve MPs' standing and increase their salaries: an early priority, perhaps, when the economy recovers.

Less controversially, let us consider one institution which has not suffered any loss of esteem: on the contrary, its reputation is as high as it has ever been in peacetime - the armed forces. "They stood, and earth's foundations stay". Everyone I have spoken too who has been to Olympic events is full of praise for the service personnel: their efficiency, helpfulness and good humour. They were not trained for this role. If they had not been drafted, a lot of them would have been on leave. They are usually sleeping in emergency billets with little in the way of comfort. But they just get on with it, because that is what soldiers do. It is humbling, moving, inspiring.

There may be a lesson to be learned. The armed forces are so superb because of their ethos. But they are not unique in having an ethos. The same is true of good schools, hospitals: of any well-run institution or indeed private company. The same used to be true of much of the civil service.

A lot has gone wrong with that service in recent years. Mrs Thatcher is often blamed: wholly unfairly. It is true that she exercised the privilege of her sex and held two contradictory opinions: the general and the particular. If she had been asked about civil servants in general, she would have been dismissive: if they were any good, they would be doing a real job in the private sector. But had anyone run through the names of those who worked for her - Robert Armstrong, Robin Butler, Charles Powell et al - she would have enthused. "Splendid men: I wish all my ministers were half as able".

The trouble started in 1997, whe the incoming Blair government found a number of ways to damage the civil service. A number of ministers made it clear that they were not interested in receiving policy advice from officials. They simply wanted to use their department as a glorified press office. In several cases, promotion on merit gave way to promotion because of diversity. The old Northcote/Trevelyan system, which had been designed to prevent cronyism and to ensure that ability was rewarded, was abandoned. So was the tradition of speaking truth unto power. The result was demoralisation and a flight of talent. I have heard not especially crusty ministers complain that their private office has difficulty in drafting a literate letter. In the old days, that would have been unthinkable.

Francis Maude is now discussing reform, and there is nothing wrong with that. The civil service can be - and must be - excellent when it is working on paper. It is much less effective when it is providing goods and services. Wherever possible, those activities should be privatised. But the policy role is crucial. This does not mean that an incoming minister has to be Sir-Humphreyed. It should mean a creative relationship, in which the minister is able to test his enthusiasm against his officials' caution, so that the end result is coherent and workable. Nor should it mean that the civil servants are the sole source of policy advice. Any sensible minister will consult experts, academics, and think tanks.

Yet there are a couple of caveats. Although the civil service is often accused of procrastination, good officials know that there comes a time when the seminar has to stop. Conclusions are required. They also develop a sense of what will work. Obstruction is not unknown. Michael Gove had a lot of trouble in his department, which he overcame. Even so, actual sabotage, as opposed to sensible warnings, is rare. Where encountered, it should of course be crushed. But the vast majority of civil servants will respect a minister who knows his own mind (as long as it is a mind worth knowing).

Mr Maude is not engaged in civil-servant bashing. He is far too wise. But he could do more to reassure good civil servants that their efforts are valued and will be rewarded. He should also do more to express a proper Tory reverence for history, and the institutions which are part of its heritage.

The Blairites knew no history. They cared nothing for ethos or institutions. Faced by anything which they did not immediately understand, their smiley-charmey act could rapidly give way to sullen resentment. Tories should be different. Francis Maude ought to make it clear that he will help the civil service to adapt to new challenges - and to recover its ethos.


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