Civil Service Reform 19

This note summarises developments from September 2018. Earlier notes in this series are listed here.

The Bluffocracy?

Entertaining and thought-provoking, the publication of Bluffocracy by James Ball and Andrew Greenway provoked a good deal of discussion. Their targets included pretty much the whole of the 'Westminster Village' including politicians, senior civil servants and political journalists. The following extracts give a feel for their thesis, insofar as it applied to the civil service.

The Institute for Government then arranged a mainly sympathetic discussion of Bluffocracy at which the following points were made, amongst many others:

Other commentators noted that the civil service was in part itself responsible for allowing non-professional staff to be misrepresented as amateurs by labelling them as “generalists”. Administrative civil servants in practice developed a bundle of related skills in the course of their career which amounted to a highly developed specialism, though not labelled as such-: for example the ability to translate Ministers’ initial ideas into legislation.

The Fast Stream

There were persistent complaints (but nothing formal) about the inadequacy of Fast Stream training, at least compared with the pre-Maude arrangements.  Departments were said not to take great interest in their fast streamers who were only 'passing through' as they no longer had a home department in which they would continue their career.  The fast streamers themselves often felt unsettled as they did not have a guaranteed job (subject to performance check) at the end of their two years' training.  And some of the privatised training was of poor quality (following the abolition of the Civil Service College/National School of Government) because training contracts had been mainly let on price.

It was perhaps particularly telling that the Treasury had refused to take part in the supposedly new civil service-wide scheme and instead now recruited into its own bespoke and higher quality program.

Civil Service Leadership

Appearing before a Select Committee , Julian McCrae responded in the following way to this question:

What is the bit of our culture, or the values, that we need to change or challenge?

Like so many things, you can probably trace this back to the Oxbridge system of creating a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about tackling a problem from first principles with relatively little knowledge. That has been a very successful way of developing civil servants if you want a cadre of people who are able to attune themselves to the political nuances of what is happening, and very flexible about creating solutions that will work inside that. It is not a great system if you want to develop the skills and expertise for doing proper and systematic policy analysis, and it has been a very weak system at developing the skills like commercial and financial and other human resource skills, which are essential to the running of a modern state.

This is not new, is it? The Fulton Commission lamented the culture of the amateur; here you are lamenting the culture of the amateur.

I sometimes quote Fulton to people and then tell them—after I have quoted it—that it is not a quote from five years ago, but a quote from half a century ago.

Ministerial/Civil Service relations and the changing policy style

The consultation page of this website notes increasing concern that the UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style. These developments have in turn affected the balance of power between senior officials and Minsters. Jeremy Richardson commented that this has in turn led to ...

... important changes within government departments, namely a change in the balance of power between senior civil servants on the one hand, and Ministers and their personal partisan staff (Ministerial advisers) on the other. The trend to increase the amount of external advice has produced a situation where many  ministers (and their external advisers, both official and informal) arrive in office with a more ideational policy portfolio in that they have their own strong priorities on what policy change is needed. There has been a shift from civil servants warning ministers and keeping them out of trouble, reflecting the traditional risk aversion normally attributed to the British civil service, towards ‘carriers’ of ministerial ideas, willing to try to implement policies even when lacking broad policy community support.

The changing relationship between ministers and civil servants has important effects on policy style because civil servants are now less able to strike a consensus with interest groups, as the civil servants often arrive at the table to decisions already made, rather than to engage in a process of mutual learning and exchange in order to generate policy solutions. The zone for negotiation is often much smaller than hitherto, and this fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction between civil servants and groups, and hence the policy style itself.

However, the fact that the more hierarchical or impositional policy style has made possible a lot of policy change does not mean that it has actually increased the policy system’s capacity to solve policy problems effectively. There are big risks inherent in the new policy style under which consultation is much more constrained.

Which leads naturally enough to concern about HMG's handling of ...


2018 and early 2019 saw occasional criticism of the civil service in general, and lead official negotiator Olly Robbins in particular, as the negotiations between the EU and the UK (and within the hopelessly split Conservative Party) became increasingly fraught through 2018. Sir Richard Dearlove and others wrote to The Times saying, amongst other things, that:

The civil service is not what it was ... diminished by 'merry go round' mandarin appointments that have undermined departmental loyalty and expertise. It has a more partisan senior leadership. Robbins is the product of this recent culture. A return towards the status quo ante might in time restore civil service confidence and confidence in the civil service.

Various previous Cabinet Minsters and Secretaries cried foul. Previous Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, for instance, wrote as follows to the Times:

Sir, The ardent Brexiteer Sir Richard Dearlove and his colleagues, and the equally ardent Remainer, Lord Adonis, all need to be very careful what they wish for in their criticism of civil servants who have the duty to carry through Brexit (letters, Oct 17). The Frenchman Pascal Lamy, the former head of the WTO, said at the weekend that he had worked with roughly 100 national civil services and the “most independent, objective, loyal civil service on this planet is in the UK”. He is absolutely right. Thirteen years as a cabinet minister, and three working for two cabinet ministers, taught me that politicians who complained about the civil service were the ones who found decision-making too hard. If we manage to get through Brexit with not too much damage it will be the civil service we should be thanking. And if we don’t, it will not be the civil service who will have been at fault.

Leighton Andrews reported as follows:

In early 2018, the then Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, was forced to apologise to the House of Commons after criticising Treasury officials over their forecasts of the impact of Brexit..  The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, explicitly attacked the bureaucratic machine as 'gremlins of government' in June 2018.

In October 2018 the then acting Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, wrote to the Times defending the impartiality of the Civil Service following a series of anonymous attacks on civil servants over both the Brexit negotiations and Brexit implementation.  Sedwill said that 'sniping' by 'anonymous sources' had to stop.  He stated bluntly that 'civil servants have always trusted that our fellow citizens, whatever their views. know that we are doing our duty to implement the decisions of the government that they elect.'. 

Sir Amyas Morse' Valedictory Interview

The Times reported as follows in early 2019:

In an attack on the political culture in Whitehall, Sir Amyas Morse criticised ministers for raising public expectations and then failing to accept when things went wrong. … The head of the National Audit Office’s comments … reflect a concern that the balance of power between ministers and senior civil servants has shifted, with officials increasingly unable to challenge bad decisions. This meant that ultimately more public money would be wasted on ambitious projects that would never be finished on time and within budget.

“I still don’t think we’ve sorted out the question of the interaction between the political agenda and delivering good results and value for money,” Sir Amyas said. “There’s pressure to do things too quickly or to announce very high-profile world-beating projects. “Allowing ministers to have a say in the appointment of senior officials has led to a position where ministers have a great deal of power over their civil servants. That’s unfortunate. They’re intelligent people. They understand that the consequences of disagreeing with a minister are likely to be pretty ugly.” Sir Amyas said there was a reluctance to accept that failures undermined trust in politics to achieve the things that people cared about."

He said that, in news coverage of critical NAO reports, the government would respond without acknowledging the problems but with positive spin. “Government should have a go at being frank,” he said. “I think the danger of being remorselessly positive is that people know life isn’t like that. People get more and more cynical about the spin. Raised expectations, broken promises and a culture of secrecy are eroding public confidence in government. That creates a vacuum that can be filled by misinformation.”

A longer interview with Civil Service World is here.  Challenged on the over-frequent government 'cockups', he pointed out that ministers need to take their share of the blame:

'Of course government cockups can have multiple causes. Unrealistic timescales, a culture of overoptimism in departments, the nature of the news cycle. “If you’re a minister, announcing: ‘I’m gradually building on the achievements of my predecessor’ won’t get you an awful lot of news coverage,” Morse points out with a smile. “‘I’ve decided not to initiate any new projects, because it would be a waste of money. I’m just going to steadily move forward with the ones that are there already.’ I’ve never heard that in my life! I’d love it if there was more of that, but we don’t have the system set up that way.”'

Elaborating on that point later in the interview, he deplored ministers' current tendency to see themselves as CEOs  (emphasis added):

What’s worse, he continues, is when ministers think that they do know how to implement policy ideas, and that officials just need to “do what they’re told, and then everything will be perfect”. “You may be a brilliant person, but unless you’ve had a background in project management and planning, you’re not actually qualified to give detailed instructions on how a project should be implemented. And you’re not supposed to be doing that. The whole accountability system is not based on ministers deciding that sort of thing, because when it goes wrong, the people who are held to account by the accountability mechanism are the civil servants who are supposed to be running it. So it really doesn’t work well. And yes, I think that’s a significant contributory factor.”

He’s seen the balance tip too far in favour of ministers, he says, recalling conversations he had with the Tory reformers Michael Gove and Francis Maude a few years ago.  “They really, really felt that the problem was that the civil service was going to get in the way of things and that’s why they deliberately set out to have more power over the civil service. I mean, ministers didn’t used to be involved in the selection of permanent secretaries. And changes like that were done on the general proposition – not based on any research that I could detect! – that this was the problem. That civil servants would be obstructive about reform that needed to go forward.  “Now, in one way, I can understand where they’re coming from – they’ve spent years thinking about [their policies and reforms] and really want them to go ahead. And then having to take it very slowly, because departments can’t manage to move very fast. It’s very frustrating. But the answer isn’t: ‘Let’s just lean over the shoulder of the driver, and push the accelerator.’ That really can lead to things going badly wrong.” 

“Civil servants didn’t create the current circumstances. They’re trying to do things in impossibly short periods of time. And actually they’ve made a pretty big effort at it”  Morse told the IfG he would like it to be clearly drawn up that ministers are there to set policy, rather than be chief executives. He also wants to see ministers hand some of the power they have accumulated back to accounting officers. Their incentive to do so would be better decisions. He holds up the coalition as a period of “balance and control”. Better decisions were made because ministers knew they would be in post for longer, and the civil service, instead of “tearing from one emergency to another”, was provided with an agreed programme for government, which got followed through methodically.

Civil Service Training

The absence of any serious planning had caused unnecessary damage to civil service training - as well as to wider civil service effectiveness - when Lord Maude set about "reforming the civil service" in 2012.  The Public Administration Committee reported subsequent development in July 2019, including much positive news about current training initiatives.  But it also noted that some serious problems remain.   Here are some key extracts from the report:- 'Strategic Leadership in the Civil Service'.

Previous Mistakes

"We reiterate the conclusion of our earlier report, as well as those of our predecessor Committees, that, despite its shortcomings, the closure of the National School for Government was premature and left a void that has not been filled. In particular, the need for a dedicated facility where Civil Servants can reflect on their experiences and share them with their peers is as significant now as it was when the Civil Service College was first established. We also note how the closure of National School for Government has made the UK the odd one out, compared with countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, France, or New Zealand. Most have a permanent institution, dedicated to the learning and development of civil servants. However, the closure of the NSG has also acted as catalyst to some of the positive developments that we go on to discuss [below].

In his written evidence to this inquiry, Julian McCrae (King’s College London) [said that]:

The abolition of the National School of Government (NSG) and replacement with Civil Service Learning (CSL) was probably a mistake, largely because of the serious weaknesses in the CSL model. This included an overly centralised, complex commissioning model. Its provision was also underfunded. For example, e-delivery was used as means of cutting costs, rather than a way of opening access to high quality provision.

Positive Developments

An apparently unintended consequence of Civil Service Learning’s (CSL) shortcomings has been that individual departments and Professions have taken their own steps to address their learning and development issues. This has seen a number of specialist academies established within the Civil Service. The Government lists the current ones as:

  • the Defence Academy;
  • the Government Finance Academy;
  • the Commercial College;
  • the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA);
  • the Government Digital Academy;
  • the Diplomatic Academy; and
  • the HMRC Tax Academy.

In addition to these, there is also the Civil Service Leadership Academy (CSLA), which aims to develop leadership skills in the Senior Civil Service (SCS) grades.  ... For the most part, these academies have been established ad hoc, as autonomous operations to address specific requirements, and then run, with limited involvement from CSL even where external partners are involved.

... the National Leadership Centre (NLC) has also been established as a separate initiative to address senior leadership capability across the wider public service.

But Problems Remain ...

Sir Richard Mottram (BGI) posed the question:  … who is the individual in the top management of the Civil Service whose day job is to answer the question, “Are the leadership and development plans and programmes and the philosophy of the Civil Service up to scratch?  He confessed that he did not know the answer and that the “governance of all of this is really quite unclear and probably not sufficiently strong”.

We share Sir Richard Mottram’s view that the governance of learning and development is:   disjointed and fragmented, with lots of different organisations who do not appear to have any meaningful self-standing status that requires them to report what they are up to and how they measure their performance. Who at the centre of Government is leading this part of the Civil Service vision? It is opaque to me.

... including with the CSLA/NLC Relationship

The CSLA has been active since its establishment but still has no permanent location. ... There [also] remain outstanding issues to resolve with the NLC before it becomes operational. Furthermore, we have found no evidence that thought has been given to the way in which these two bodies complement the professional academies.

The Government’s [told us] that “Our model is built on a system of dedicated professional academies”, but we could not find anyone who is accountable for this “model” or who has designed or has a settled concept for such a “system”.

As the plans for the NLC have progressed, it has become apparent that it will not play the coordinating role for the Civil Service the Minister seemed to suggest. The NLC’s remit will be both narrower and broader than the CSLA’s. Its focus is narrower insofar as it is aimed exclusively at the most senior levels in each sector: those “very close to the top of the pyramid”.  It will be broader because it will not be focussed on leadership in the Civil Service alone.

We welcome the establishment of the National Leadership Centre (NLC). For a learning body with a prospective market of fewer than 2000 people, the NLC’s £21 million budget is generous. We are not critical of this—if it achieves even a small improvement in public service productivity, it will easily cover its costs. However, in comparison with the much smaller amounts given to the Civil Service Leadership Academy, the budget is striking."

The Government's response, published in October 2019, was pretty bland but provides a useful summary of its training strategy at that time, whilst noticeably failing to address the lack of a clear 'owner' of civil service learning, development and talent management.  It also refused to countenance PACAC's very sensible recommendation regretting the closure of the National School of Government and suggesting that there should be a new institution in a permanent location.  Instead, the Government argued that it had "adopted a whole system approach to learning, creating a learning ecosystem, balancing centralised and decentralised provision".  So that was alright then.

July 2019 also saw the leaking of communications (critical of President Trump) from, and subsequent resignation of, Sir Kim Darroch, the UK's ambassador to the USA.  The culprit was never identified but it was generally understood that he or she intended, amongst other things, to discredit Darroch because he had been head of the UK's Permanent Representation in Brussels. It was particularly troubling that future Prime Minister Johnson failed to support Darroch during a leadership contest debate.  The head of the Foreign Office issued this tribute to Sir Kim:

Over the last few difficult days you have behaved as you have always behaved over a long and distinguished career, with dignity, professionalism and class. The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and whole of the public service have stood with you: you were the target of a malicious leak; you were simply doing your job. I understand your wish to relieve the pressure on your family and your colleagues at the Embassy; I admire the fact that you think more of others than yourself. You demonstrate the essence of the values of British public service.

I want to stress my deep appreciation for all you have done over the last four decades. In a series of demanding roles – including National Security Adviser and Permanent Representative to the European Union – you have loyally served the government of the day without fear or favour. We have been lucky to have you as a friend and colleague. You are the best of us.

Prime Minister Theresa May also resigned this month, heralding the first few days of Boris Johnson's governmentSubsequent developments are summarised here.


Martin Stanley

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