Conservative Diary


6 Sep 2013 09:57:28

Whitehall reform isn’t just about ministers versus civil servants, but also ministers versus backbenchers

By Peter Hoskin
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I know, I know – I’ve talked about Whitehall reform once today, which is already unhealthy. But there is actually cause to raise the subject again. The Commons’ Public Administration Select Committee, chaired by the Tories’ own Bernard Jenkin, has today released a report on the matter, which is far from kind about what has been achieved. You can read the whole thing here, but this Times article (£) captures the tenor of it. Some of the words in that report include: “doomed”, “devastating”, “failings”, etc, etc.

In the interests of keeping this post short, though, I’ll concentrate on one of the report’s recommendations: that a parliamentary commission be established to conduct an inquiry into the Civil Service. This is something that Mr Jenkin has suggested before, and you might think that there’s plenty of cross-party ministerial support for it. After all, who in Government hasn’t been frustrated by the Civil Service and by the stuttering attempts to reform it? Who wouldn’t like a bit of parliamentary cover for change?

But, in truth, it’s not like that. As I’ve pointed out before, Francis Maude appears to be set against the idea of a commission – particularly one so soon – for the reason that something needs to happen now, and that’s what the Government’s policies are for. The key line came in a speech that he delivered in June. “In 1968 the Fulton Commission made numerous recommendations,” he said, “but can anyone remember anything actually changing?”  

And it isn’t just Maude: members of the last Government, including  Andrew Adonis, have spoken out against any commission. If Bernard Jenkin wants his way, he’ll have to overcome a fair swell of disagreement.

6 Sep 2013 08:13:59

The small stuff that’s preventing the Government from delivering the big stuff (such as Universal Credit)

By Peter Hoskin
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This isn’t exactly a boom time for that commodity called “government competence”. After the National Audit Office’s uncomplimentary prose about the delivery of Universal Credit, yesterday, it sounds as though the Public Accounts Committee is going to be similarly critical about the course of HS2. According to a report in today’s Daily Mail, the committee will next week “deliver its own ‘damning’ verdict on official plans and costings for the 225mph line”.

Now, I have divergent views about the Universal Credit (one of the most important social reforms that the Coalition is introducing) and HS2 (scrap it, probably) – but there’s a question that unifies the two. And that is: can the Government ever implement its grands projets on time and on budget? At the very least, it often seems to struggle.

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30 Jul 2013 12:06:08

How Maude believes government could save more taxpayers' money

By Paul Goodman
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For all Francis Maude's ultra-modernising views, his Conservative roots run very deep: after all, his father, Angus Maude, was Margaret Thatcher's Paymaster-General and co-author, with Enoch Powell, of Biography of a Nation.  In his time, man who now holds the same post as his father has been a Treasury Minister, lost a seat, found another, served as Shadow Chancellor and been Party Chairman.  In short, Maude is a veteran politician who could have put his feet up in office - as others have been known to do as they age - and treated his appointment as a bit of a last hurrah.

This hasn't happened.  Even his critics concede that he has made "far-reaching reforms", and Maude himself points out that the civil service is now at its smallest since the Second World War.  And although some of the work will doubtless have been outsourced, there's no doubt that the waste and extravagance of the Brown and Blair years is being curbed.  Behind the Times's paywall today, Rachel Sylvester describes how a team of civil servants helped to drive finding £500 million of savings last year, and believes that there are big digital reductions to be made across Government - "the Cabinet Office believes it can save 40 per cent on the cost of building secondary schools". (Peter Hoskin has described the enthusiasm of younger civil servants for change on this site.)

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13 Jun 2013 14:08:29

Stephen Hester's eventual replacement is walking into a political minefield

By Peter Hoskin
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Rbs“Us? Encourage Stephen Hester to stand down? Nah, really? You mean the RBS Stephen Hester, right? Pffft, nothing to do with us. I mean, why would we even...? It’s not like we want the bank privatised according to some sort of timetable, y’know. We’re completely hands-off. See my hands? Off. Completely. Why would you even think…? Nah. Us?”

And so on and so on.

The above quote many not be – how you say? – real, but it captures the general noise coming out of the Treasury today. They don’t want their paw-prints anywhere near the Hester resignation, and for very understandable reasons. This state-owned bank may be state-owned, but no-one wants to create the impression that politics is determining its future. Any privatisation must be done for the good of the bank, the public and the public finances – not for the Tories’ electoral chances.

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12 Jun 2013 07:22:00

First, fewer Special Advisers. Now, a record number. But where's much of the growth? Step forward, Nick Clegg...

By Lewis Sidnick
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Screen shot 2013-06-11 at 20.12.17The departure of Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson from Downing Street received widespread media coverage.  But much less attention has been given to the wave of Prime Ministerial advisers and Special Advisers (SpAds) deserting their posts. Since 2010, with a few exceptions, Secretaries of State have been allowed to have a SpAd, but other Ministers have not (in contrast to the Blair and Brown Governments). When entering Downing Street, David Cameron placed great emphasis on cutting the number of advisers across Government from 82 to 61. The decision got some good headlines - but it was a mistake.

SpAds are crucial to their Ministers. First, they are political, and can therefore protect, warn and be a safety net for a Minister walking the tightrope of Ministerial office. Civil servants have agendas (to varying degrees). They want to direct their Ministers, and they want to influence decisions. A Minister often stands very little chance against an army of civil servants and the boxes of papers that they present. A little advice and perspective from their political adviser can be crucial - but this is unavailable to most of David Cameron’s Ministers below Cabinet level.

Continue reading "First, fewer Special Advisers. Now, a record number. But where's much of the growth? Step forward, Nick Clegg..." »

7 Jun 2013 07:53:58

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.”

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

3 Jun 2013 11:03:06

That Cabinet Office radicalism I mentioned? Its fruits are evident today…

By Peter Hoskin
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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on the radicalism of the Cabinet Office and how, in some instances, that radicalism is being slowed by ruts along Whitehall. Among its examples was “cost savings”. Here’s that section in full:

RadicalAnd the point of all that digital government? Openness is part of it, but there’s also the related cause of value-for-money. For instance, by publishing the Government’s shopping receipts online, waste can be more easily spotted. And by enabling people to access public services with a keyboard and mouse, several layers of expensive bureaucracy can be done away with. Indeed, one Cabinet Office report reckons that the “greater digitisation of transactions” could save taxpayers almost £2 billion a year. But that’s not the sum total of the Cabinet Office’s drive to cut costs. In 2010, the Efficiency and Reform Group was established to help other departments find spending cuts. By the National Audit Office’s account, this group is “clearly helping departments achieve substantial reductions in annual spending” – to the tune of £5.5 billion in the last financial year.

RutThere are very few caveats to attach to the Cabinet Office’s efficiency drive; for a low cost itself, it is achieving significant savings elsewhere. But there is a fear that it will struggle to keep up its successes in the face of firmer opposition to cuts from other departments. As one civil servant puts it, “The Spending Review process is fraught and difficult. Cuts have become an even harder ask.”

And the reason I reheat those words now? Because today has given us very clear evidence of the Cabinet Office’s worth. Francis Maude is set to announce that, between the last general election and the end of the financial year 2012-13, the Government has saved £10 billion by implementing savings throughout the Civil Service – 25 per cent higher than the £8 billion target. As for what those savings are, the Cabinet Office has produced a handy infographic to elucidate matters. £1.7 billion has come from “better management of big projects”. £3.4 billion from “becoming a leaner, more innovative Civil Service”. And so on. Much of this has been driven by the Efficiency and Reform Group that I mentioned in my original post.      

Apart from the numbers contained within it, one thing that’s striking about today’s announcement is its presentation. The work of the Cabinet Office can often sound dry and technocratic, but here it’s sold in simple, human terms. Mr Maude describes the Efficiency and Reform Group as the “taxpayers’ champions in Whitehall”. The savings, we’re told, are “equivalent to almost £600 for each working household across Britain, enough to fund three million primary school places or the building of 500 new secondary schools.” The Cabinet Office clearly wants it radicalism to show.

29 May 2013 17:49:19

Philip Hammond's spending review rebellion may be more loyal than it looks

By Mark Wallace
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John_LilburneWhen Freeborn John Lilburne, the Leveller, appeared before the Star Chamber in 1637, he refused to do as they asked. He would not take the oath or answer questions, and as a result he was fined £500, whipped, humiliated in a pillory and thrown in jail.

Given that history, it is not hard to see why George Osborne has chosen to refound the Star Chamber to deal with those in the Cabinet who are refusing to sign up to the cuts needed for his spending review. A number of ministers must be hoping the pillory, at least, has been decommissioned since Lilburne's day.

The psychology is simple. Instead of being pelted by the London mob, any modern day John Lilburnes who won't play along are set to face humiliation in front of their peers. Eric Pickles, Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin will be sat alongside the Chancellor flinging the metaphorical rotten turnips.

But the politics is rather more complex than it appears.

Continue reading "Philip Hammond's spending review rebellion may be more loyal than it looks" »

20 May 2013 08:39:48

The Cabinet Office is the seat of this Government’s radicalism – but it’s stuck in several ruts

By Peter Hoskin
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Cabinet OFfice

Here’s a question for this sullen Monday morning: which minister presides over the most radical department in Whitehall? I put the same question to some political sorts the other day, and wonder whether your answers will be the same. As they saw it, there were three main contenders: Michael Gove, with his department helping establish so many free schools; IDS, for working towards the Universal Credit; and George Osborne, for overseeing all those cuts. As for the answer I would have considered giving myself, it didn’t come up at all. No-one said Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office.

Perhaps this is because the Cabinet Office is such a peculiar, unknowable creature. It sits there at 70 Whitehall, its corridors of power winding towards Downing Street, and fulfils a role quite distinct from that of any other department. It’s meant to give shape and direction to the Government of the day, which has traditionally meant supporting Cabinet committees in doing their work. But the looseness of that role has seen it accumulate responsibility after responsibility. From helping out the Whips’ Office to changing royal succession laws, from organising honours to defending Britain’s computer networks from malicious interference, all this falls under the Cabinet Office’s purview. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of Government: multi-purpose, but what’s the connection between a compass and a toothpick?

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30 Apr 2013 08:26:28

IDS and universal credit. "They lied to him." Trouble with the civil service

By Paul Goodman
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In "Yes Minister", Sir Humphrey is infinitely more intelligent than Jim Hacker, and invariably tries to frustrate whatever changes the politician wants to make to the system - but, if given an instruction, he follows it: it would be against his sense of his professional pride for him not to do so.  Although I have been a politician, like Hacker, I have never - unlike him - been a Minister, and have presumed that the Jay & Lynn portrait of the civil service is broadly unchanged.  In other words, it may be an oligarchy in awe of its own self-perpetuation, but it is also an efficient and able one, in which the spirit of Northcote and Trevelyan still lingers.

Furthermore, I suspect that some of the reported problems with the civil service are actually the fault of politicians.  Too many Ministers don't seem to sail with a clear sense of direction.  This being so, they get pushed around by the wind and the waves: indeed, some seem more preoccupied by their image with journalists than delivery in office.  And those who complain about civil servants are, arguably, setting back reform rather than furthering it.  This is because the Government can't enact its programme smoothly and efficiently without the co-operation of the civil service, and picking a public scrap with it is, on the face of it, counter-productive.

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