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Another escalation in the battle against Whitehall’s permanent government

By Peter Hoskin
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Outside of Manchester, the most significant political speech of the day is being delivered by Francis Maude to the Institute for Government. Indeed, it could actually be more significant than “the most personal speech ever given by a British political leader,” too. For Mr Maude’s subject is the structural relationship between government and the civil service, and how it should be altered. His words will mark an escalation in the struggle against Whitehall.

And, judging by this report in the Financial Times, what an escalation it will be. Mr Maude is set to claim that senior civil servants have blocked government policy or advised other officials not to implement it. And while that will be no surprise to Whitehall watchers, and while Mr Maude will describe these cases as “exceptional”, it still amounts to an accusation that some civil servants don’t just fail to do their job, but succeed in the doing the opposite of it. It’s another sign of what I’ve written about before: Mr Maude’s growing impatience and determination on civil service reform.

But there’s policy as well as rhetoric — and it’s a policy so straightforward, yet potentially effective, that you wonder why it wasn’t implemented two years ago. From now on, the objectives set for departmental permanent secretaries will be published online, such that “Permanent secretaries can then be judged for their performance against these objectives”. It’s a dose of sunlight that ought to have an effect by itself. The pressure on senior civil servants to implement, or at least comply with, ministerial demands will be greater, if only because they will be named and shamed if they don’t.

But this is likely to be only half of Mr Maude’s plan, and the informal half too. He has already asked think-tanks to consider how the performance of senior servants can be formally tied to their contracts, such that sackings can follow on from failure. And, if that happens, then these online checklists will have considerable bite. Chomp.


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