The Modern Civil Service

2022 offered two fascinating if depressing glimpses into the performance of two large government departments.

The FCDO and the Evacuation from Kabul

The first was a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report into the 2021 evacuation of British personnel from Kabul.  This extraordinary document in effect accused the Foreign Office Permanent Secretary and the National Security Adviser of lying to Parliament.  Some extracts are here.

Grenfell Tower

The second glimpse into a modern civil service department took the form of evidence given to the Inquiry into the 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower.  Officials admitted that they had been warned that the department's policies would likely lead to a large and deadly building fire, and that the warnings had not been heeded.  I have summarised much of the evidence in a paper which concludes as follows:

This is not a picture of a civil service setting out to obstruct ministers' policies.  It is at best a picture of excessive willingness to accept staff cuts and other HR policies which left the department, at all levels, incapable of doing its proper job.  It is a picture (to quote Nick Hardwick) of 'people who ... can write a good minute which gets the minister out of trouble.  Not those who can run things so they don't get into trouble in the first place'. 

The Grenfell tragedy is important, therefore, not just because it killed 72 people.  It is important because it highlights deficiencies within the highest levels of the civil service.

MHCLG is not an isolated example of a poorly performing department.  Similar pressures are almost certainly found in most other departments.  MHCLG civil servants responded to current pressures by degrading their working practices until they became unrecognisable to those who worked in government 20 or 30 years ago.  It seems likely that their opposite numbers in other large departments are even now working in similar ways. 

My summary of ministers' and civil servants' evidence to the Grenfell Inquiry is here.


Martin Stanley

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