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:
- 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.
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
The increasing power of these three and others is discussed here.
But perhaps the more worrying development was a report that the new Cabinet Secretary (appointed in September 2020) would be told that he did 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 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-
- 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."
[I will add Wendy Williams' contribution asap.]
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.)