This note summarises developments from July 2020 - the period when the (first?) peak of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic had passed but analysis of the government's performance - and recriminations? - were beginning. The note includes activity through to March 2021. Earlier notes in this series are listed here.
The UK had by June 2020 probably suffered a much higher death rate (just less than 1 per 100,000 population) than any other country. There were no doubt many reasons for this, but questions would inevitably be raised about the performance of the Civil Service. Follow this link for some thoughts on the government's handling of the crisis (which clearly ignored experienced civil service advice).
Little Resilience, Contracting Out, Excessive Centralisation and a Supine Civil Service?
The consequences of Thatcherism and subsequent Thatcherite policies were nicely dissected in a blog by Hugh Pemberton.
Francis Maude Reappears
The Minister who, in 2010, reckoned that he had "chosen the high road of transformational change ... rather than producing elaborate strategies ... we've just gotten on with it" - was hired to have another go - this time focussing only on the Cabinet Office and "cross-cutting functions and the operation of spending controls". To be fair, however, he had implemented rather better planned reforms in 2012. See also a further comment below....
Resignation of Cabinet Secretary
Mark Sedwill had a remarkable career in National Security and latterly as Home Office Permanent Secretary and was a favourite of Prime Minister (and former Home Secretary) Theresa May. She accordingly asked him to succeed Jeremy Heywood as Cabinet Secretary (without a competition) when the latter fell ill. This would have been sensible if the appointment had been temporary but it may have been a mistake for Sir Mark to accept the permanent appointment as he did not have the broad experience normally required for the person who had to oversee all Whitehall's operations. Sedwill himself said later that the Prime Minister knew what she was getting – and “I was unable to persuade her to not ask me to do it. ... I've never made any secret of the fact that I took on the job because I was asked to, out of a sense of duty”.
Be that as it may, Sir Mark's tenure was bedevilled by the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the arrival of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Sir Mark was increasingly briefed against and took voluntary early retirement in the sumer of 2020, at the age of 55, taking £250k compensation to smooth his exit.
It was reported that it also proved difficult to identify his own suitably qualified successor who was willing to work within Mr Johnson's No. 10. According to Dominic Cummings, Case "did not seek the job and tried, with me, to get others to do it”.
The Commission for Smart Government ...
... was announced in August 2020. It was a project of GovernUp which had produced some excellent reports and advice back in 2015 and had since disappeared from sight. But it transpired that GovernUp had become subsumed within The Project for Modern Democracy.
The Commission's website announced its aims as follows:
- The Commission ...is an independent initiative to consider how to make public administration more effective.
- Britain’s machinery of government, despite its strengths, is no longer equal to the challenges facing the country, failing to match strategic vision with execution.
- Successive administrations have encountered problems delivering major projects, often arising from inadequate skills and confused accountability, and have grappled with the use of new technology.
- Problems are too often characterised as the fault of civil servants when they are in fact systemic, and when politicians are equally responsible for failure. Nor is the solution simply to increase private sector delivery, as poorly executed and expensive outsourcing projects have demonstrated.
Further developments are summarised below.
Dominic Cummings, David Frost (- and Dan Rosenfield)
The increasing power of Dominic Cummings and others is discussed in the Special Advisers part of this website. Dominic Cummings was eventually sacked in November 2020 along with his mate Lee Cain, the politically appointed Director of Communications at No,10. Mr Cummings had sought to have Mr Cain appointed as Prime Minister Johnson's first Chief of Staff but Dan Rosenfield was appointed instead. Although Mr Rosenfield was well connected, he was also a well regarded former Treasury official. The appointment accordingly looked to be more in the Jonathan Powell or Ed Llewellyn mould, both diplomats who had become No.10 Chiefs of Staff and who focused on running a smooth operation as much as on the politics of the day.
But there was a worrying development in that it was announced that the new Cabinet Secretary (Simon Case, appointed in September 2020) would not have day-to-day responsibility for the quality of policy and national security advice. This was presumably because the Prime Minister intended to look mainly to David Frost and soon-to-be-sacked Dominic Cummings for such advice. This reminded me of the way in which Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull had been told by Tony Blair not to take an interest in the planning and preparation for the invasion of Iraq:- a decision which did not impress Chilcot.
It was initially announced that David Frost was to be taken taken off Brexit duties in order to be appointed National Security Adviser but that daft idea was soon dropped and he was instead first made the Prime Minister's Brexit and International Policy Adviser before being elevated both to the Lords and to the Cabinet and asked to oversee future relations and negotiations with the EU. Stephen Lovegrove (previously MoD's Permanent Secretary) became National Security Adviser.
The Temperature Rises
The last few months of 2020 saw a perhaps inevitable series of criticisms of the civil service from with government circles as ministers sought to deflect blame from their faulty handling of Brexit and the COVID-19 virus (at the same time as the Prime Minister's friend, Donald Trump, was facing COVID-19 and many other problems of his own in the run up to the November Presidential elections). Theodore Agnew, a Conservative peer, former businessman and minister in charge of civil service reform was reported as 'lambasting' a 'broken' system characterised by an 'obsession with policy as a theoretical train of thought' among officials. He added that the civil service lacked commercial and practical skills and diversity of thought, and ran 'the most over-centralised bureaucracy in the Western World'.
Dialogue of the Deaf?
There was plenty of 'push back', of course, but no sign of constructive engagement between the two sides.
The Mile End Institute hosted an event in October in which three experts described their reactions to ministers' criticisms.
Jill Rutter noted that - despite (Oxford, Classics) Boris Johnson's and (Oxford, History) Dominic Cummings' dislike of 'generalist mandarins', they were now supported by a trio of classical mandarins-
- Cabinet Secretary Simon Case - Cambridge, History - former Private Secretary to (future King) Prince William
- Treasury Permanent Secretary Tom Scholar - Cambridge, Economics - son of a former Permanent Secretary.
- Alex Chisholm - Oxford, History - grandson of the 22nd Baron Windlesham
Looking back, the idolised Northcote Trevelyan reforms had been a reaction to widespread, nepotism, corruption and inefficiency. But they had taken a long time to become fully embedded in civil service culture - arguably until the early 1900s. Minister/civil service relations then reached 'glorious harmony' after World War 2, but it has been downhill ever since with politicians increasingly seeing civil servants as 'part of the problem', not 'part of the solution'. This is a particular feature of the current 'profoundly insecure government'. Whether or not as a result of this, much of the current civil service lacks a culture of curiosity and challenge. (I would add that this is also because austerity-driven staff cuts, and the closure of the National School of Government, have led to striking reductions in training and thinking time.)
Both Jill and Hugh Pemberton noted that those interested in civil service reform in the UK were over-focussed on the 'anglosphere' - the USA, Canada, Australia, new Zealand. Much could be learned from other countries - not least Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.
It is worth reading Hugh Pemberton's contribution in full. His own summary of that contribution was that "... if we are to have a revolution in British public administration, it would help if we understood the history of how we got to where we are today. What that history tells us is that the past half century has seen both constant change in the civil service yet no let up in attacks on it as the cause of government failure. That suggests the problem might not just lie with civil servants. So let’s not, yet again, set out on reforming the civil service without thinking about whether that might need to be accompanied by a wider overhaul of political and cultural institutions, and of our constitution. History suggests that change is always easier to achieve if ministers work with civil servants rather than against them. But I think another lesson might be that change is more likely to endure politically if it emerges from a process that is about building consensus rather than simply adversarial."
Wendy Williams reprised the devastating conclusions of her Windrush - Lessons Learned Review which contained very serious criticisms of civil servants. She hoped - with possibly less than 100% confidence - that there would not be another 'failure to learn and such an episode would never be repeated.
Too Much Reliance on Consultants?
Many civil servants will have cheered when they heard that Cabinet Office and Treasury minister Lord Agnew had written to his colleagues complaining that Whitehall had been “infantilised” by an “unacceptable” reliance on expensive management consultant. He asked that they should rein in spiralling costs paid to private firms and stop “depriving our brightest [public servants] of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”.
Simon Case Appears before PACAC
The new Cabinet Secretary appeared for questioning by MPs in October 2020. He played the inevitable 'straight bat' to most questions. I noticed only three particularly interesting points:
- He was happy to talk about 'line managing' Permanent Secretaries - a concept that would have been alien to some of his predecessors. But he shares the task with Alex Chisholm, the COO, and Tom Scholar, the Treasury Perm Sec.
- He struggled a bit with questions about what would happen if and when ministers asked officials to work in contravention of international law - as was envisaged by the Internal Markets Bill.
- He would encourage officials to take risks - but only 'sensible' risks. Hmmmm. (Follow this link for a detailed discussion of this important question.)
GovernUp and The Commission for Smart Government
The GovernUp research initiative had appeared dormant for several years but came back to life in the form of the above-named commission which published its first research paper (What's Gone Wrong with Whitehall?) in late 2020.. Its summary read as follows:
This paper contains the Commission’s starting assessment of whether the UK’s system of government is world class on four tests. Does it:
1. Have a clear strategic direction?
2. Bring about change?
3. Use technology and data well?
4. Attract and effectively deploy great people?
These tests are connected. Government cannot plan and do well without making good use of technology and data, and without a skilled, well-managed workforce. But it needs to set and deliver a strategy for building those vital capacities.
External observers – Moody’s and the World Bank – are increasingly critical. The current Government knows we need radical reform and has set out some elements.
Our view is blunt. Britain’s reputation for strong government which delivers for citizens is under threat. Running policy sores like social care have remained unfixed through successive administrations. There is no sign of a strategy for big strategic challenges – climate, social and economic inequality, our way in the world after Brexit. A death rate from coronavirus ten times that of Germany and twenty times that of East Asian countries shows the system is not resilient. It has been weak at bringing about improvement: reform plans come and go but are not ambitious enough or are allowed to fizzle out.
Comparing the current system to our four tests:
- Weaknesses in the system and structures of government seriously undermine strategic coherence. The centre of government is underpowered and dysfunctional, with inadequate support for the office of Prime Minister and confused roles and accountability. There are big institutional barriers to departments working together. Systems for planning resources and activity are weak.
- Government struggles to bring about change. There is systemic failure to design workable approaches, notably on complex social and economic challenges which cannot be tackled by top-down centralism. Accountability is weak and confused. There is no clear approach to working with local government, other public bodies and private and NGO public service providers.
- There are good ambitions on data and technology, but they require more impetus, ambition and investment. Technology must provide better services to meet citizens' needs and transform the efficiency of internal processes. Government must not lose the confidence of citizens that their data is handled well and must practice openness.
- Outdated practices for managing people and skills require urgent reform. The staffing and leadership of the Civil Service lacks the mix of skills and backgrounds needed for a modern government which is effective and responsive to the society for which it works. There are major structural barriers to reform and improvement. Political talent requires conscious development and support too.
Moving Out (of London)
A headline-grabbing (though probably relatively unimportant) part of the government's reform agenda was the move of significant numbers of civil service jobs out of London and the south-east. The IfG commented on the idea in its 2020 Moving Out Report which noted in particular that the opportunity should be taken to recruit locally rather than relocate people as well as their jobs.
'Relocations, particularly for policy and other specialist roles, should focus on improving the capacity of the civil service by widening the pool of highly skilled workers available to it. '
Poor Crisis Management
As the months passed by, it became increasingly clear that the Government was making an astonishing number of severe mistakes, not only in Brexit negotiations and preparations but also in its handling of the COVID-9 pandemic. Here is an extract from an IfG report commenting on ministers' failure to plan and consult:
In [crisis] times, the practices that should normally guide good decision making – like properly defining the problem, setting goals, making good use of evidence, planning implementation at the same time as designing the policy, talking to those affected, being clear about who is responsible for what and building in feedback loops – might seem like a luxury. Crises do not wait for lengthy consultations or the results of randomised controlled trials; the greatest mistake for a decision maker can sometimes be to delay.
But when the stakes are high and there are no second chances, far from being a hindrance, taking the time to set clear and considered objectives, think through how a policy will work in practice before making a decision and involving representatives of the people who will be affected by the decision increases the chance of success.
The decisions on lockdown and school closures were taken and introduced swiftly, and with little consultation and planning for how they would work in practice. For two key services – police and schools – thinking about implementation lagged rather than informed the policy decisions, which meant those services were less prepared than they might have been.
We heard from senior government officials that, in some cases, they were taking their instructions directly from the prime minister’s daily press conference – with limited or no opportunity to feed in advice before decisions were made. The government did conduct some limited consultation, but this was not sufficient to head off some of the problems that occurred once the lockdown and school closures were introduced.
The Johnson Government
As 2020 drew to a close, there were continuing concerns about the character of our Prime Minister, perhaps best summarised by constitutional lawyer David Allen Green:- "It turns out there is little one can do when a powerful person unashamedly defies the rules of the game. With social media and modern communications technology, never has it been easier to mass shame the powerful … and never have the powerful been so unashamed.’ And it became all too clear that the civil service could do nothing to curb his behaviour. Follow this link to read a representative sample of comments made about Boris Johnson, mainly during 2019 and 2020.
Nine Years Earlier ...
It was interesting to read Ciaran Martin's comparison of the Johnson government's talk of reform with what had actually been achieved, nine years earlier, by Francis Maude and colleagues:
For a start, Maude, and the other reformers, had a clear, published narrative and strategy. You could support or resist it but you knew what it was. There was a set of deliverables, and a team to implement them. He had a 31 page plan. By contrast, the only attempt I’m aware of to put the current Government’s thinking on the civil service into a coherent basis for action is one speech by Michael Gove last summer at Ditchley. Strip away some interesting historical references, mostly to FDR, and there is nothing new in this speech. The stuff on publishing data is all from Maude. The stuff on the role of the NAO and the PAC in fostering a culture of risk aversion dates from the early Blair years. Moreover, there is no evidence of a programme of work to implement even these stale ideas, or of a team working on them. This is in marked contrast to the very systematic implementation of previous reforms, notably Maude’s. So it comes down to this. In marked contrast to the previous 40 years of reforms of the civil service, this administration’s “war on Whitehall” has been entirely devoid of substance. What has actually taken place is nothing more than turbocharged courtier politics ... despite the ferocity of the rhetoric (“hard rain” etc) , nothing was done in 2020 that changed the way the civil service actually works, in marked contrast to the previous reforms over the decades which achieved a lot more with a lot less noise.
It is worth noting, though, that Professor Martin was commenting on the 2012 reforms. Francis Maude's 2010 "change programme" had been much (and justifiably) criticised.
What Does Jeremy Think?
The late Jeremy Heywood's autobiography, in effect ghost-written by his widow Suzanne Heywood, was published in early 2021. Sir Jeremy (later Lord Heywood) had been Cabinet Secretary from 2012 to 2018.
It made depressing reading, either because it demonstrated that even the Cabinet Secretary no longer felt able to challenge seriously mistaken decisions or because it demonstrated, as David Henig commented on policy making around that time, that: "The atmosphere in government between Theresa May becoming PM and the 2017 election was not generally one in which discussion or expertise was welcomed.. On any topic, but particularly Brexit.".
I particularly noted the following:
- p451 JH did not challenge PM Cameron's decision not to want any pre-referendum planning for how to respond if the vote was to leave the EU.
- pp457/8 JH believed (in 2016) that Ireland would be a huge Brexit problem.
- pp458/9 There was strange ‘one step at a time’ approach to developing Brexit policy. There was no attempt to identify the overall shape of the final settlement.
- There was also no sign that JH delegated, or managed the Brexit process, at all effectively He seemed to get far too far into the weeds - the detail.
- pp 471 & 474 Theresa May’s Oct 2016 conference speech meant leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. The Jan 2017 Lancaster House speech added a commitment that there would be no new barriers within the UK. Art 50 was then triggered too early. JH appears to have been a passive observer of all this.
The IfG's Bronwen Maddox had a similar reaction, questioning whether Jeremy Heywood had "tried too hard to find a solution for Theresa May, and should have said No, Prime Minister".
This was Chancellor Philip Hammond's recollection of the October 2016 speech (emphasis added) which raises the question of how and why the officials in No.10, including Jeremy Heywood, allowed the Chancellor and other Cabinet ministers to be kept in the dark. Although civil servants do not draft political speeches, such as this one, they do have a duty to ensure, as far as possible, that nothing false or stupid is said.
I was completely stunned by the speech that she made at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016. I hadn’t seen the relevant part of it in advance. I’d had no input to the speech. Nick Timothy [a Special Adviser] kept me completely away from it. I did see some text on the economy the day before, but I had no idea that she was going to describe Brexit in the hardest possible terms.
I was absolutely horrified by what I was hearing. All I remember thinking was, ‘There will be a television camera that will be on your face. If you move a muscle, it will be the story on the front page of every newspaper tomorrow.’ I remember I wasn’t even really listening to her. I was just sitting there. I remember exactly where I was sitting: on the end of a row, to the side of the stage, looking up diagonally at the stage, looking up at her. I just remember focusing my entire energy on maintaining a rictus half-smile, and trying not to show any reaction at all, and then get out of the room without speaking to any journalists. I was completely and utterly horrified by what I felt was almost a coup: a definition of Brexit without any proper Cabinet consultation at all.
My assessment of Theresa May’s Prime Ministership, in terms of Brexit, is that she dug a 20-foot-deep hole in October 2016 in making that speech and, from that moment onwards, cupful by cupful of earth at a time, was trying to fill it in a bit so that she wasn’t in such a deep mess. Every speech she made on Europe since then was rowing back from the original proposition. Lancaster House rowed back from what she implied in the October speech. Florence rowed back a bit further. Mansion House a bit further still. Every time we moved on this, it was to move backwards from the brink. That was why she never dominated this agenda: because she was always on the back foot, retreating, fighting rear-guard actions, rather than being on the front foot with her campaign.
I left that room – I remember this very well – and had to go immediately by car to a helicopter landing site just outside Birmingham, to be flown to Heathrow to catch a plane to the US because the IMF annual meetings were coincidental with the party conference. When I arrived in Washington, it was to discover that the pound was in free-fall, on the back of the Prime Minister’s speech and the market’s reaction to it. I then had to get out on the TV in Washington, to try to reinterpret the Prime Minister’s speech for the markets in a way that would try to stop the slide in sterling. We had what looked like a genuine sterling crisis on our hands in the couple of days immediately after the speech. It was a disaster on all fronts, a total unmitigated disaster that scarred her Prime Ministership and should have sealed Nick Timothy’s fate, but I think she only realised later how badly that had constrained her ability to deliver any kind of practical Brexit at all.
Remember, the complex narrative about the nuances of Brexit and so on came much later, so I’m not even sure that she understood, as she was delivering that speech, how extreme the words coming out of her mouth really were. I think if she’d understood, if she realised that she was lining up people like me and metaphorically kicking us in the groin, I don’t think she would have done it. I don’t think that was her intention.
In the same interview, Mr Hammond described Mrs May's huge unwillingness to consult or listen to her Cabinet colleagues. Here is another extract:
Each of those three big set-piece events, the speeches, the detailed texts, and the concessions and the movements were argued over and angsted about for weeks beforehand. Not the whole text, because she didn’t share that, but bits of text would be discussed in little secretive meetings. Sometimes, I lost track of whether the Prime Minister knew I was being ‘confidentially’ shown a bit of text or whether I was being shown it on the quiet by someone. She showed, or her team showed, different bits to different people, and they were constantly triangulating and juggling, right up to the last moment, as to where she would land on the day.
Then what she always did, at the very last minute, was call a Cabinet meeting. She’d have a draft of the speech in the Cabinet Room; you’d go in and you would have half an hour before the meeting to look at it. Nobody had a chance to even get through the speech, never mind critique it. There would then be a Cabinet meeting in which the Cabinet would be required to endorse it or resign, basically. Surprisingly, on every occasion everybody endorsed it, even though not everybody was happy with it.
It is hard to understand why Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood did not do more to ensure that the Cabinet properly debated and agreed such key policy decisions. One might also wonder why Philip Hammond and his colleagues did not make more of a fuss at the time.
It is also very hard to understand why Jeremy Heywood did not insist, to the point of resignation, on being allowed to do some Brexit planning before the referendum - and on raising the Northern Irish issue more effectively. It was no doubt partly because courtiers do not resign, and partly (to quote Jill Rutter) because of his "not really understanding the EU's red lines and approach". Jill, in the same tweet, drew attention to Ivan Rogers' interview with UK in a Changing Europe which included these comments.
I felt the UKREP experience just gave me much better grounding on what [Brexiteers] actually thought, why they thought it, what they were reading, what blogs they were reading, who they were listening to, why. It made me gloomier – frankly, I would say just more realistic – than the vast bulk of my London colleagues about where things would end up for Cameron and his team.
… I often felt rather better informed than Jeremy Heywood for example, whose ‘feel’ on so many domestic issues was legendarily good, but who in my view rarely really ‘got’ what Brexit was actually about for its most important devotees until he was actually facing trying to implement it.
The top of Whitehall was slow in my view to understand not just how much of the British public was thinking, but how a substantial and actually very voluble chunk of the political class was thinking, and why they were thinking it. ‘Europe’ was always ghettoised in Whitehall, and without being too unkind, my view is that most of the mandarins did not have much clue what was coming. And I thought I did.
I think one attempt very soon after Jon had left and I had taken over with Jeremy was to say we need to think seriously about leaving and its consequences, and set up a little secretariat in the Cabinet Office about what would that look like. You needed a small set of expert people who could really devote their lives to thinking this through properly. I think Jeremy was against it anyway, but he basically said Clegg would veto.
Now Clegg was not there. [Mr Cameron] basically thought the more you look at it and the more you licence that kind of stuff within the Coalition Government system, the more probable it is that we could end up going down that path, which you have legitimised by exploring it, so he didn’t want it done. I said to Jeremy at one stage but I can’t even remember which year, let alone which month, ‘But why don’t you just do it off your own bat? You’re the Cabinet Secretary, and you could just say we in the system need to do this work because we now have a very serious possibility that we’ll have a majority government that’s committed to doing this, and this is one of the outcomes: the system has a duty to be ready.’
But he didn’t want to do it. I can quite understand why. I did come back to that after the 2015 election and said, ‘But it might help our negotiating hand if it were taken seriously,’ and I’d certainly said similar to Cameron at some stage, ‘It might help our negotiating hand if you were known to be working up post-Brexit options in the event that your negotiation didn’t succeed. Because otherwise they just think that you’re going through the motions and you’re putting them through this purgatory of this ridiculous renegotiation, and you’re going to recommend ‘yes’ anyway, so what the hell? So, you have to keep them nervous. You might recommend no.’
But we didn’t get very far on that. I do think we should have put more work into that.
I had said to Jeremy after the October speech, ‘You just have no idea how bad this is. This is a disaster in Brussels and around capitals. What she’s done is a fatal error and she’s now put herself in an incredibly weak negotiating position, both with the guarantee by a date certain of invocation of Article 50 and then with these red lines, which are unobtainable, and which she is going to end up bitterly regretting having put in such blunt terms.
Then of course he’s doing the usual Jeremy thing of exhorting, ‘Everybody carry on and sooner or later they’ll all sober up a bit in the face of reality.’ You remember, the classic Jeremy response of course is, ‘We can’t rush our fences, otherwise we won’t be in the room at all and it’ll all just be Nick and Fi, and sooner or later, reality will dawn even on these people.’ And, of course, I’m saying, ‘Yeah, but it’s much worse than that actually. She’s just blown herself up, she just doesn’t know it yet.’
Anthony Seldon (writing about Theresa May's premiership) commented that:
Some think [Heywood] went too far to appease [Chief of Staff] Timothy on Brexit in 2016-17 ... but his approach, born of experience, had always been to pick his battles.
Had [Heywood] not been ill with cancer, and absent from the summer of 2018, the history of these years would have been different.
The government announced that it wanted to recruit someone to oversee the unification of its five major digital identity systems into one system. It offered a salary of £120k. Although a lot of money, this was surely very much less than would be paid by the private sector, given the project's sale and complexity.
The Growing Chasm between Ministers and Civil Servants
And so, to close this page, I can do no better than to quote this extract from a blog by Patrick Diamond:-
Dominic Cummings’ dramatic departure from 10 Downing Street inevitably stirred great excitement among political pundits and commentators in the Westminster village. It raised fundamental questions about the future character of the Johnson Administration. Among the most significant was whether Cummings’s historic project to fundamentally transform the British state was now over. There was speculation that shorn of its permanent campaign ethos, the Conservative Government would revert to a more measured governing style, striving to work co-operatively with the civil service, respecting constitutional convention, upholding democratic norms, while practising statecraft by consent. Many officials will desperately hope that Cummings’s demise amounts to the end of the ‘hard rain’ that has fallen on Whitehall since the Brexit referendum in 2016.
Nevertheless, civil servants would be mistaken to assume that Conservative Ministers are about to revert to a more consensual governing approach where officials are free once again to ‘speak truth to power’. The growing chasm between Ministers and civil servants is a long-term structural trend, exacerbated by alterations in the ideological nature of British Conservatism. The influential ideas of the New Right in Britain and the United States attack bureaucrats as self-interested and incompetent, the very antithesis of the public good. Cummings’s rhetoric has inflamed tensions and certainly not helped matters. Yet he alone is not the driver of the growing division in the ‘governing marriage’ that characterised Whitehall since Northcote-Trevelyan and the Haldane report of 1918.
As Rodney Lowe and Hugh Pemberton outline in their masterful second volume of the Official History of the British Civil Service, six forces have propelled Ministers and officials towards divorce, while fragmenting and destabilising the system of government in the UK.
The first is the growing emphasis in the British state on prioritising a narrow measure of financial efficiency. The focus on cost reduction since the efficiency review led by Derek Rayner in the early 1980s led to a sharp fall in civil service numbers. Over the last decade, numbers have fallen further (although there has been a slight uptick since Brexit). Not surprisingly, the financial squeeze has left the civil service demoralised and weakened the fabric of the state.
The second is the related trend towards outsourcing. Service delivery has come to rely less on the public sector than on a multiplicity of private and non-governmental providers. Civil servants are the managers of contracts, commissioners increasingly detached from frontline implementation. More than ever, capital investment has depended on Public Private Partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative.
The third development concerns governance fragmentation. Compelled to operate within the ministerial fiefdoms of Whitehall’s departmental system, officials have struggled to work across boundaries to shape effective policies. Among the most far-reaching reforms was the creation of ‘Next Steps’ agencies in the late 1980s. Over time, three quarters of the civil service have been transferred to ‘arms-length’ agencies, entrenching the artificial separation between policy determination and operational delivery, making ‘joining-up’ all but impossible.
The fourth trend is centralisation. Policy-making influence in Whitehall has become increasingly concentrated. The growing power of the centre in Number 10 has encouraged group-think and hyper-innovation, marginalising the civil service. Yet paradoxically, the centre has become more enfeebled and brittle, lacking the necessary capabilities for effective decision-making, detached from the realities of ‘street-level’ service delivery.
The fifth accompanying shift is the politicisation of Whitehall. Among the most significant changes is the doctrine of ministerial supremacy. Rather than formulating policy through constructive collaboration between officials and Ministers, the ideas of politicians, often developed in the opposition years, have come to dominate the policy-making process. Ministers, after all, have a direct mandate and their views are held to encompass ‘the will of the people’. Yet side-lining civil servants has created a deliberation deficit which exposes Ministers to the growing threat of policy fiascos and blunders.
The [sixth and] final long-term change has been the ideology of the limited state. The position of the civil service was further undermined by the ethos of small government that prevailed after 1979. The role of the state was now to uphold private property rights and the basic liberties of the individual. Any constructive role for government in developing the industrial base, spurring economic growth and improving productivity was eschewed. This position amounted to a further attack on the efficacy of the public bureaucracy.
Subsequent developments are summarised here.