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Reform by accretion: Why the Spending Review probably won’t deliver a Whitehall Big Bang, but a Tory majority might

This is the fifth and final article in ConservativeHome's week long series on the Spending Review, and follows those by Peter HoskinSean Worth, Mark Wallace and Tom Papworth. Today, Peter Hoskin surveys the Coalition's efforts to reform the Civil Service. Follow Peter on Twitter.

Cutting it

Exhibit A: a speech that Francis Maude delivered to Policy Exchange earlier this week, on the subject of civil service reform. It contained a dose of lamentation about the state of things, both general: “reform plans generally end up gathering dust on library shelves.” And specific: “There have been occasions … when ministers in both the current and previous Governments have found that decisions they have made don’t get implemented.”

Exhibit B: an article that Sue Cameron wrote for yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. It contained lamentation, too, but this was about the ministers rather than the civil servants. “Watching ministers publicly rubbishing their senior civil servants, either in general terms or, even worse, by name, is an unedifying spectacle,” it began. And it went on to single out Mr Maude for opprobrium: “Francis Maude … has made another speech denigrating Whitehall and calling for ministers to have the final say on top appointments.”

With that sort of evidence on the table, it’s easy to see why the political media talk of a “War on Whitehall”. On one side, the ministers who want change, and are rushing over the top to fight for it. On the other, the civil servants, hunkering down in their trenches, and repelling everything that’s thrown at them. Us versus them. Them versus us. Black and white, cut and dry. But, here’s the thing: as so often, the truth is a little more complicated.

For starters, there’s Mr Maude himself. Those quotes I opened this article with? They may be rather piquant, but they were cooled by the words around them. The minister went out of his way to praise the Civil Service as “one of the great institutions of the British governmental scene”. He claimed that there is little opposition to reform, “with the possible exception of some trade unions”.

And it’s not just speeches. Even within Government, there is acclamation and cooperation going on, as well as that nasty ol’ denigration. As one Tory adviser puts it, “To say we hate the Civil Service is like saying we hate teachers. We don’t, we think they’re great on the whole. We just want to make Whitehall better, as well as schools.”

Such sentiments are shared by civil servants themselves. In his speech, Mr Maude said that “civil servants themselves are impatient for change” – and he wasn’t lying. In my conversations in Whitehall’s boozers, I’ve found plenty of civil servants – particularly the younger ones – who support the Government’s reform agenda, and might even go further. They want a Civil Service that’s like the best of the private sector: responsive, digitised, performance-related. “I love my job,” says one, “but I’d love it more if I wasn’t operating in such an out-of-date environment.”

Sure, there are permanent secretaries and other assorted high-ups who aren’t happy with the Coalition’s plans. But, it should be said, not all permanent secretaries are alike. There are some – such as Chris Wormald at the Department for Education, and Richard Heaton at the Cabinet Office – who are routinely applauded for their reform-mindedness. And even the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, bespectacled nemesis of the Tory backbenches, is said to be broadly supportive of the Government’s plan, his occasional outbursts notwithstanding.

So what, then, has been holding reform back? Part of it, of course, is the resistance of those permanent secretaries who brief Sue Cameron. Part of it is the unyieldingness, inbuilt rather than malicious, of the Whitehall machine. But these go remarked all the time. Far less commonly noted is the unpreparedness of the Tories before Government. “We had a happy-clappy, naïve attitude towards the civil service,” admits one adviser now. Too few paid heed to Steve Hilton’s warning that an unreformed Civil Service could impede wider reform. And the result was inertia and delay. It took a whole two years for the Coalition to publish its Civil Service Reform Plan.

But something has changed recently, and not just because there’s a pdf to save to our desktops. The West Coast Mainline fiasco is said to have made David Cameron much more eager for change. The Prime Minister sought and received assurances, at the time, that everything was proceeding as it should – so that when the whole thing shattered, it was the rudest of awakenings. The Tory leadership is beginning to realise, more keenly than before, that departmental failure undermines the elected part of Government’s claims to competence.

Then there are the appreciable gains that have been made over the past year. In his Policy Exchange speech, Mr Maude rightly said that “too little of what we set out nearly 12 months ago has been fully executed,” but that doesn’t mean that none of it has. From data transparency to the part-privatisation of the Nudge Unit, the Cabinet Office’s natural radicalism has, as I’ve written recently, managed to overcome some of the ruts in the road. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the Efficiency and Reform Group, which has already helped identify £10 billion of savings across Whitehall.

This is partially why Mr Maude is said to be ambivalent about the idea of a parliamentary commission into “the future of the Civil Service,” as suggested recently by Bernard Jenkin. From his perspective, reform has already been too long in coming; its effects and efficiencies are needed now, whereas a years-long commission could just upset that process and cause further delay. It was very telling, in his speech, how he spoke of the Fulton Commision of 1968: “[It] made numerous recommendations – but can anyone remember anything actually changing?”

And change is what those with experience of government tend to want. You'll find little, if any, support for a commission among those involved with the New Labour administrations. Andrew Adonis yesterday tweeted that it's a "bad idea. Excuse for inaction and naval gazing [sic]". Speaking after Mr Maude delivered his speech this week, Margaret Hodge wished that it had been more radical. Tony Blair said of the Civil Service, in January, that "time has passed them by". John Healey has pushed for a more American system in which bureaucracies change when governments change... and so on.

As for what all this means for the forthcoming Spending Review, it’s worth rewinding back to the last Spending Review. Back then, George Osborne asked a bunch of outside consultants to review the various departmental proposals for cuts, and determine whether they were too ambitious. And the outcome? As I revealed in the Times (£), the consultants reckoned that they were not nearly ambitious enough. They suggested, for instance, that the Department for Communities and Local Government could have its headcount reduced by 90 per cent – at which point, it might just be axed completely, its responsibilities spread elsewhere.

Those recommendations weren’t implemented then, and – despite rumours that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport might be abolished – they are unlikely to be fully implemented now. After all, this latest Spending Review is for one fiscal year only, and that after an election. Why struggle through the hoops of Coalition, in service of what may be only hypothetical changes, when so many of the Cabinet Office’s original proposals are yet to be implemented? Why risk aggravating what tensions there are across Whitehall? Perhaps there are answers to those questions, but I doubt the Treasury is keen to find them.

Mr Maude’s plan is now one that is working by accretion: day-by-day changes that should deliver a different Civil Service by 2015. But after that? Perhaps the most striking line in the minister’s speech was his admission that “The plan includes some necessary first steps but it’s certainly not sufficient.” If the Tories are still in power after the next election, then they will not be so unthinking towards Civil Service, its strengths and its flaws. They will have that most valuable commodity, experience. And that is when the second steps might begin.


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