Civil Service Reform 22

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.  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, some years previously, 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.  The need for his re-employment was hardly a tribute to the success of his earlier efforts.

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.  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 was proving difficult to identify a suitably qualified successor who was willing to work within Mr Johnson's No. 10 team.

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:

Preparation for Consultation on Civil Service Modernisation and Reform

The Cabinet Office contracted McKinseys in May 2020 to help prepare 'a reform prospectus document'.  The Statement of Requirements is here.  In brief, McKinseys were asked to 'set out the case and opportunity for reform, the key areas for action, and provide a basis for wide engagement in the civil service and beyond'.   McKinseys were told that 'There is the potential for this to develop into a further, subsequent phase where the requirement would be for a strategic partner to support the refinement and roll out of the programme, building momentum from the consultation into a fully fledged multi-year reform programme that is rigorously managed across government. '

The main focus of the document appeared (yet again) to be better delivery, better project management, 'enhanced capability', more diversity and 'innovating better'.  But the document also contained an interesting paragraph on 'resetting relationships' (emphasis added):-

It is important to champion and promote mutually respectful and productive dealings within government.  A reform mindset among Civil Service leaders must also be promoted, reflecting the new administration’s own outlook as well as objective realities. There are many brilliantly talented and committed leaders across the Civil Service, but there are also potential questions to be addressed relating to accountability and to appetite for new approaches. Ministers should feel absolutely confident when setting policy goals that their departments will deliver against them, and should not have to spend excessive time dealing with low level administrative matters, leaving them free to prioritise instead big decisions and external representation and communication. It is also worth considering how Ministers can be confident in making complex decisions on the basis of partial advice, including on their ability to draw on appropriate politically focused support.

If properly carried through, this requirement could eventually lead to a significant change in the relationship between ministers and officials.  Whether this change would be for the better or the worse remains to be seen.  But there is as yet no suggestion of any change to the relationship between officials and Parliament. 

Dominic Cummings, David Frost, Dido Harding - and Dan Rosenfield

The increasing power of these three 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 he 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 the new Cabinet Secretary (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

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.

Relatively new C/Service COO Alex Chisholm made a promising start in July 2020 by presenting to, and taking questions from, an IfG-organised group of those experienced and interested in civil service reform.  This was just before his speech to Civil Service Live.  Warm noises were made about following up this dialogue, but nothing had happened by mid-October.

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-  

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:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Martin Stanley

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