Ex-Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has renewed his criticisms of senior civil servants. According to The Times, he believes that they routinely mislead Ministers, waste billions of pounds, “turkey farm” poor performers (promoting them or moving them sideways) and treat outsiders as “country members of their club. Whitehall has ‘a bias to inertia’ and needs to be fundamentally reformed, he says.
His use of the word ‘club’ is interesting – and pretty accurate. The club like nature of the Senior Civil Service has been one of its great strengths. The club’s culture has fostered great integrity, commitment to public service, mutual support in times of real crisis, and – yes – an admirable willingness to forgive occasional error rather than eject everyone who takes risks that go wrong.
The clubby atmosphere is however also its greatest weakness. Forgiveness of mistakes morphs too easily into tolerance of poor performance. ‘Turkey farming’ is indeed widespread. New recruits from outside are indeed eyed with considerable concern until they have shown that they will not rock the club’s boat too much. Senior women have to be ‘the right sort of chap’.
But I don’t buy his accusation that Ministers are frequently deliberately misled or disobeyed. He has said this before, been challenged to quote examples, and failed to do so. I suspect that the truth is that some of his reforms were deeply unpopular with his Ministerial colleagues (as well as civil servants) and so failed to gain traction. There was certainly great bitterness, for instance, in Vince Cable’s department when they obeyed Cabinet Office orders to buy ICT from smaller firms and found themselves unable to identify any one provider willing to take responsibility for ensuring that an expensive new system actually worked. They wished they had dragged their feet like some others – including the Treasury who strongly opposed the creation of new central functions and in due course totally opted out of Francis Maude’s disastrous recruitment and training reforms. If (now) Lord Maude has criticisms, they should be directed at George Osborne.
As for ‘wasting billions of pounds’ – tell that to the many high level project management recruits from the private sector. They despair at having to implement major projects with unclear and changing objectives, ridiculous politics-driven timescales and inadequate resourcing. Think Universal Credit – or Brexit ….
What about the “bias to inertia”? Maybe it’s “Look before you leap, Minister!”
The real shame is that Francis Maude and his officials missed their golden opportunity to reform Whitehall when embarking on what they described to the Public Administration Committee as “intense change” and a “dramatic change in culture”. “The civil service will inevitably become much smaller, flatter and less hierarchical, as it should do.” But they reckoned that they could achieve this change without any sort of plan. The Minister and his officials, including Gus O’Donnell, Head of the Civil Service, said that there was “no blueprint” and proposed to implement the changes “for the first time without a White Paper”. “A lot of this is just common sense – not revolution”.
To their credit, Committee Chair, Bernard Jenkin, and other committee members were openly sceptical. Surely every successful change programme needed to be planned? “Having a plan is an act of leadership.” In response, ex-Accenture and loyal official Ian Watmore declared that he was a change expert, recruited from the private sector, and saw no need for a plan – a statement so ridiculous that it would undoubtedly have led to failure in any appointment or promotion interview whether within the civil service or with his previous employer.
Reporting in 2013 Sir Bernard’s committee said that “The Government has not … identified any fundamental problem with the Civil Service and the Minister, Francis Maude, says he does not believe that fundamental change is necessary. We conclude that “incremental change” will not achieve the change required. Unless change is clearly heralded and given high profile leadership by a united team of ministers and senior officials, it is bound to fail.”
The Liaison Committee – made up of the Chairs of all the Commons Select Committees – then agreed, even after they had met the Prime Minister: “We remain unconvinced that the Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan … is based on a strategic consideration of the future of the Civil Service. The Prime Minister’s evidence to us in September did nothing to suggest that the Government has a coherent analysis of why things in Whitehall go wrong. We endorse the recommendation of the Public Administration Select Committee that the Government should ask Parliament to establish a Parliamentary Commission into the Civil Service.”
The Government’s January 2014 response was an extremely – almost rudely – thin and bland document which said very little more than that “The Government is not persuaded by the Committee’s argument in favour of a Parliamentary Commission”.
But Whitehall is of course well overdue for reform. There have been many successful management and efficiency reforms, including under Francis Maude. Longer ago, ‘Fulton’ and ‘Next Steps’ were very positive developments but they didn’t touch the fundamental questions that so concern Lord Maude. Indeed, there hasn‘t been a proper look at the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the Civil Service since Lord Haldane reported in 1918. I am far from sure that I know the answers but it is surely reasonable to ask questions such as:
- What is the right balance between cost and service quality – in terms of both the service provided by ‘Whitehall’ to Ministers and the service provided by the wider (and much larger) Civil Service to the public?
- Are senior officials now spending too much time defending their Ministers, and not enough time speaking truth to power?
- Is there no way of allowing officials to demonstrate promotability other than by moving from job to job every couple of years?
- How much freedom should officials have to innovate and respond to local needs?
- Do we still need a single ‘Civil Service’ as distinct from a number of grouped departmental administrations?
- Or, looking the other way, do we still need a single Civil Service comprising only 8% of, and quite separate from, the rest of the public service?
It’s a great pity that Francis Maude did not allow these questions to be asked when he had the chance.
Editor The UK Civil Service