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Where now for civil service reform?

By Peter Hoskin
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It’s been quite a week on Whitehall. Not only was there — as Tim highlighted yesterday — the whole West Coast Mainline debacle, which resulted in the suspension of three civil servants. But there was also Francis Maude’s speech on Tuesday, which emphasised that senior civil servants had, on occasion, “blocked agreed government policy from going ahead”.

I’ve written about the aftermath of both for today’s Times (£): a sort of politics-focused post-script to the article I wrote for them last year (£) on the policy of civil service reform. Here, for those who cannot climb beyond the paywall, are five of its points in digestible form. I apologise for yet another five-point summary, it’s just how my brain is wired:

1) The anger. Behind this week’s brouhaha is a fair amount of pre-existing resentment between ministers and the civil service. Here’s how I begin my article:

“Want to test out the star key on your keyboard? Then just talk to some of the combatants in the Blair-Brown wars, and reprint the results. Even now, it’s ****ing this and ****ing that. It’s a reminder that, in politics as in life, the closest relationships can yield the fiercest insults.

I mention this because of a similarly toxic relationship in this Government — not between Liberal Democrats and their Conservative coalition partners, but between ministers and civil servants. ‘They often don’t have a ****ing clue,’ says one government adviser of officials in his department. The response came from a civil servant: ‘I know they think we’re all incompetent, but what the **** do they think they are?’ At least one department has had to act against civil servants setting up anonymous Twitter accounts to attack ministers and their advisers.”

Of course, this doesn’t apply equally across all departments — in some, the ministerial teams and the officials even get along. But, on the whole, there’s something there, simmering.

2) The cause. There are plenty of theories as to why such anger should persist: that it’s just a natural product of government; that the civil service is ideologically opposed to the Coalition; etc, etc. But the overall account I find most persuasive is woven into Andrew Adonis’s recent book Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools. The former Labour schools minister writes that Whitehall’s problem is “managing change”, for the reason that “it rarely views change programmes as projects requiring continuity of management and real expertise in processes and policy”. And so, as I say in my article, “attempts at change lead to frustration which can lead to — yep — all that effing and blinding.”

3) Win the fight, and relations can improve. It’s telling that in those departments where the “change” battle has been fought and won — such as in Education, where Michael Gove’s free schools programme has become the new norm — relations have generally improved. This isn’t to say that everyone gets along (one of the disgruntled civil servant Twitter accounts I mention in my article is from the DfE), nor that there isn’t potential for conflict over other reforms. But it does suggest the benefits of having a properly thought-through policy, and sticking to it.

4) The Heywood factor. Much attention will now be focused on Jeremy Heywood, who, as the Cabinet Secretary, is the civil service’s man inside No.10. Tim mentioned him in his blog yesterday. David Davis attacked him over the BAE merger last week. And it’s true: Mr Heywood does wield an extraordinary amount of influence inside this government, which makes it worrying to hear that he has expressed his “scepticism” about the implementation of IDS’s Universal Credit. But I’m also told the Cabinet Secretary is broadly supportive of Mr Maude’s crucial plans to reform the civil service, and was involved in discussions to make sure they’re deliverable. The question is whether he will get behind future, more radical, reform measures, such as any which tie officials’ contracts to performance.   

5) What next? The potential for further anger is certainly great: there’s the process of civil service reform; the DfT mess; the attacks on Mr Heywood, which may become a proxy for attacks on David Cameron; and so on. Much of this is understandable, and the greater pressure for reform ought to be welcomed, but my fear is that it will overspill into something worse. I finish my article thus:

“Any increase in hostilities could scupper good ideas, such as the suggestion by the former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, that senior civil servants be paid more. Politicians may simply balk at the idea, but this policy has succeeded in Singapore, on the ground that you get what you pay for. In the wake of the West Coast rail fiasco, fewer but better would be a good principle across Whitehall.

In the end, those who want a new Civil Service may have to stem their collective anger. There’s a point at which creative tension can become something altogether more destructive. Ask Tony and Gordon.”


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