Civil Service Reform 24

This note summarises developments in 2022.

Gisela Stuart - Appointment as First Civil Service Commissioner

A majority on the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee approved Gisela Stuart's appointment to the constitutionally vital role of First Civil Service Commissioner, with the minority expressing concern about her impartiality.  This was because she was known, as one commentator put it, to be an "ally and ideological fellow traveller of Prime Minister Johnson". 

A New Statutory Role for the Civil Service?

The Institute for Government (IfG) published the above-named (without the ?) and interesting paper in March 2022.  You can read it here.  Its premise and argument were nicely summarised in its first few paragraphs:

The civil service is central to government in the UK. Civil servants advise ministers, implement the government’s policies and run many of its services. The civil service has evolved continually since its establishment, in semi-recognisable form, in the 1850s, but without a single clear statement of its role, definition, purpose, remit, leadership, governance or accountability.

This lack of a clear identity, or defined responsibilities, is one of the obstacles to the UK government becoming more effective. Nobody, including the prime minister or the head of the civil service, has the necessary authority and available time required to lead and manage the civil service. Instead, often conflicting responsibilities are distributed between ministers, senior civil servants at the centre of government and departmental permanent secretaries. Policy co-ordination and implementation suffer because of inconsistencies between departments. The Cabinet Office and Treasury cannot accurately track the delivery of key priorities. The long-term capability and resources of the state are not well managed and the constitution is poorly interpreted. Risk management is poor with personal responsibilities for owning risks too diffuse. And ill-defined accountability within the civil service, and between ministers and officials, leads to unnecessary mistakes followed by blame games, preventing important lessons from being learned.

This paper proposes a new statutory role for the civil service to address these problems. It would act as a statement of the civil service’s permanence, its values, its objectives and how – at the highest level – it should be run and held to account. It would define the civil service’s position in government and its operation and set out a governance structure that improves accountability while at the same time reinforcing and strengthening its legitimacy.

A new role set out in statute would not address every problem in UK government and our proposals are not comprehensive or the final word on the subject. But by setting out for the first time the operational sphere of responsibility of the civil service and how it should work, the partnership between ministers and civil servants – upon which government depends – can be strengthened and the long-term standing of the civil service improved.

Better Policy Making

The IfG also published the above-named report in March 2022.  It noted that:  'Of course, effective policies require  - above all - ministers with good judgment and a clear idea of what they want to achieve.  And policy making is not a process with a single ‘right’ answer – it is messy and often the skill is in the consensus-building and compromise needed to get things done.'  Having said this, the report then made a number of sensible recommendations to address 'five main problems':

Leadership College for Government

The Government announced its intention in February 2022 'to reform leadership and management training for civil and public servants, establishing a new Leadership College for Government'.  (emphasis added)

Paul Dacre and Sarah Healey

The right wing printed press were never great fans of the civil service but February 2022's Private Eye reported a particularly vile and unwarranted attack - see image on the right.

The Johnson Government

And working for the Boris Johnson government remained ... challenging, to say the least.  He himself appeared to be presiding rather than governing whilst concern grew that he and his colleagues were allowing, and maybe encouraging, state capture by narrow interest groups. See, for instance, this speech by Liz David-Barrett.

And then there was 'Partygate' - more and more evidence that the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary, the Director General for propriety and ethics, and large numbers of other No.10 Cabinet Office staff had taken part in leaving and other parties during the Covid pandemic  - whilst the rest of the country has been told (and legally obliged) not to socialise with those outside their immediate families.  Many of them (though not Cabinet Secretary Simon Case) received and paid fixed penalties from the police.  Sue Gray's report is here. 

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this affair was that no senior official resigned or, as far as could be seen, faced significant disciplinary proceedings. Senior press officers remained in post, despite the fact that they had clearly breached the Civil service Code by knowingly lying about the existence of the parties.  Simon Case also remained in post, and Mr Johnson's Principal Private Secretary (who had followed him to No.10 from the Foreign Office) was lined up for a significant diplomatic appointment - whereas their predecessors would undoubtedly have resigned in shame. 

The FT's Chris Cook noted, too, that the Cabinet Office and No.10 'routinely break the law.  On [Freedom of Information] and [Environmental Impact recording] they regard their statutory duties on disclosure as optional and they lie routinely'.

The Prime Minister also published an updated Ministerial Code.  Even the enduringly polite staff of the Institute for Government commented that "the changes strongly emphasise personal prime ministerial power, remove institutional constraints developed over time & are consistent with a view that no 'network of obligation' binds the PM".  The foreword, in particular, lost text requiring the "very highest standards of propriety, no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money".

Declaration on Government Reform

One year on (by June 2022) it seemed that interest in this initiative had markedly waned.  Michael Gove had moved on to 'Levelling Up, Housing etc.' and his successor, Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared to prioritise job cuts over more serious reform.  His announcement of 91,000+ job cuts is summarised here

Working from Home

Mr Rees Mogg at the same time waged a war on those still working from home after the waning of the Covid pandemic, seemingly oblivious to the associated accommodation cost savings and to the attraction of flexible working to (otherwise underpaid) more senior staff - and especially female staff.  He even suggested that civil servants still working at home could be at increased risk of losing their job.

SCS Recruitment

It was also announced, around the same time, that all senior civil service jobs would be advertised externally by default.  It was not clear whether this would make much real difference as many such jobs had previously been so advertised where it made sense to do so.  The appointment, for instance, about four months later, of external candidates to the posts of Chief People Officer and Chief Digital Officer followed previous appointments to similar HR and technology posts. 

Training

Civil Service World reported as follows in July 2022:

Government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is planning to ban “ridiculous” training courses offered to civil servants, he has said.  The Cabinet Office minister has said all courses that he believes are “subject to mockery”, and particularly diversity and wellness programmes, will be banned and only “intelligent, sensible” courses will be available in the future.  “There will be a new curriculum coming which will stop these absurd courses being available,” Rees-Mogg said, in an interview with The Telegraph.

Rees-Mogg does not have the power to cancel training run by individual departments but told the newspaper he would write to secretaries of state to ask them to review courses currently offered to officials.  He has also ordered the government’s learning and development hub, the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit, to scrap any “fancy” training programmes and replace them with courses useful to civil servants’ jobs.

The civil service training curriculum was only just updated in January 2021, with the launch of the GSCU.  He highlighted a course run by the Cabinet Office, his own department, called “Check Yo’ Privilege” as an example of the “absurd” type of diversity training that he wants to ban.

Johnson's Resignation - and Simon Case

Prime Minster Johnson announced on 7 July 2022 that he had been forced to relinquish leadership of the Conservative Part and so would in due course cease to be PM.  Philip Stephens commented that:

His premiership saw a sustained assault on the values, institutions and traditions underpinning British society. The civil service, the judiciary and the BBC have all come under fire in Johnson’s campaign to dismantle the checks and balances embedded in the constitution and replace them with rule-by-the-mob populism.

Mr Johnson said, in his resignation speech, that "I want to thank the peerless British civil service for all the help and support that you have given".  Anthony Seldon, however, writing in The Times, said that:-

He hyperbolically praised the civil service in his resignation speech outside No.10.  But he never trusted them, and oversaw a climate of fear which damaged morale across Whitehall.  The captain of a team needs to inspire those who work for him, something he never did, his boosterish rhetoric appearing hollow and insincere against the backdrop of government briefings in the media against the civil service."

Ex-Civil Service Commissioner David Normington wryly noted that the transition to a new Government was taking place at a time of severe international and economic crisis.  Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had "sometimes seemed like a bystander at a car crash ... now is the time for him to step up".

And the IfG's Alex Thomas urged Mr Case to be more "muscular" and confident in his public defence of the civil service.

Was Prime Minister Johnson brought down by a Mandarin?

The 'straw' that broke Mr Johnson's premiership was his handling of the Chris Pincher affair.  This anecdote, published by Tim Shipman in The Sunday Times, reveals the length to which even ex-civil servants will go to try to avoid embarrassing Ministers that they detest:

When Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip, got drunk in the Carlton Club in St James’s and was accused of sexually assaulting two men, Downing Street took more than 24 hours to strip him of the Tory whip. No 10 then denied that Johnson knew of any specific allegations against Pincher when he appointed him. Pincher denies the allegations.

That claim was to kill him. At 7.30am on Tuesday, Lord McDonald, who retired from the Foreign Office in 2020 when Johnson combined the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, broke cover and tweeted: “I have written to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards — because No 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth.” He published a letter revealing Johnson was personally briefed on a similar investigation that upheld a similar complaint against Pincher in 2019 while he was a foreign office minister.

On the face of it, this looked like an attempt to wound by an ex-mandarin who was accused of being a vocal remainer. In fact, it was yet another pratfall from No 10. McDonald had privately contacted senior civil servants last Sunday to tell them No 10’s “line to take” was a lie. This was communicated to members of the Downing Street communications team — but nothing changed. “It was another totally unforced error,” a senior civil servant said.

McDonald’s intervention persuaded Sajid Javid, the health secretary, to jump.


Martin Stanley

 

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