Civil Service Reform 23

This note summarises developments from around April 2021.

The Institute for Government published Finding the Right Skills for the Civil Service in April 2021.  It had lots of good analysis and good suggestions, of which perhaps my favourite was that managers needed to be more accountable for developing their teams.  (It was of course depressing that such a report needed to be written, as most if not all of the recommendations could have been made (and probably were made) at frequent intervals over previous decades. )


A 'modern' approach to the recruitment of senior No.10 officials hit the headlines in and after April 2021.  The initial cause was the discovery that previous PM David Cameron had lobbied on behalf of Greensill Capital after leaving office.  Greensill Capital was subsequently declared insolvent threatening large numbers of jobs, including in Sanjeev Gupta's GFG Alliance/Liberty steel, whose own financial arrangements looked odd, to say the least.

It then transpired that:

Writing in The Times, former First Civil Service Commissioner David Normington commented that:

'This is about much more than obeying the strict letter of the rules. It is about the standards of behaviour required of anyone in public life. That means acting with the utmost integrity and, as the civil service code says, “putting the obligations of public service above your own personal interests.” Good behaviour cannot be legislated for. It needs leaders — the prime minister, parliament and senior civil servants — to set the example. I hope that our present leaders will now rise to that challenge.'

And, on the radio, Sir David said that, in his time in the civil service, the idea that an official could hold two parallel jobs, one commercial, would have been so obviously wrong that no-one would have considered approving it.

Ex-chief lawyer Jonathan Jones remarked on Twitter that government departments are in general very disciplined about civil servants' external roles, but are happy for them to take up social and charitable positions where there is no risk of conflict, still less impropriety.

Writing in the FT, Robert Shrimsley commented as follows

The genesis of the current scandal lies in efforts started by Cameron and continued by Johnson to change the culture in Whitehall. The moves to bring in outsiders to shake up what was seen as an inefficient and obstructionist Whitehall were led by Francis Maude, a cabinet office minister under Cameron. The background was the era of austerity and the need to find substantial savings.  There is nothing to suggest any wrongdoing in this aim, but in the words of one senior civil servant from that period: “Those brought in to shake things up did not have the same values as long-term civil servants and the culture of contempt towards Whitehall generated within the civil service a defensive crouch and low self esteem which made them unwilling to challenge actions they felt were wrong.”

Simon Case's appearance before Commons Committee

The relatively young and relatively newly appointed Cabinet Secretary failed to impress when appearing before a Select Committee in April 2021.  He dead-batted most of the questions about the current accusations of improper behaviour by Prime Minister Johnson, and in particular claimed or feigned ignorance of how a very expensive refurbishment of the PM's flat had been funded.   He was presumably under instruction from the PM as to what he should say (see the Osmotherly Rules) but Jill Rutter opined that his performance "will surely have confirmed him in the eyes of his colleagues as a weak figure unable to stand up to the PM on issues of public integrity.  Senior political journalist Lewis Goodall said that "To come to the committee claiming inadequate knowledge of questions around the Downing Street flat is extraordinary, borne out by the reaction of the MPs on the Committee (of all parties).

On the other hand .... assuming Mr Johnson (a very maverick Prime Minister) had absolutely insisted that Mr Case played dumb, then his only other option would have been to resign.  One might sarcastically conclude that there is a fundamental rule that no-one likely to resign on a point of principle would ever be appointed Cabinet Secretary. Equally, though, civil servants owe their allegiance to ministers not to Parliament.  It is for Parliamentarians to hold the Prime Minister to account.  If they fail to do so, the country is in deep trouble - as perhaps it was.

Social Mobility Report

The Social Mobility Foundation published a fascinating report in May 2021 - Navigating the Labyrinth - drawing attention to the ways in which civil servants from lower social-economic backgrounds found it difficult to navigate their way to promotion, especially into and through the senior civil service.  A more detailed commentary is here.

Covid Epidemic

Dominic Cummings' appearance before MPs in May 2021 began the process of serious inquiry into what had gone wrong in the government's response to the Covid pandemic, even though ministers would not allow the formal inquiry to begin until 2022, so that it would not report before the next election.  Here is Robert Shrimsley, writing in the FT:

... the system needs to be sufficiently robust to deal with a leader who is ill-suited to the crisis at hand. It is here that there were dismal systemic failures.

In the first weeks of the crisis, the nation’s amateur, inexpert system failed to guide the prime minister. Officials, ministers and advisers could not secure Johnson’s attention and even when they did, the scientific advice was unclear and changed radically during the course of March last year.

It rapidly became clear that previous administrations had left the country in a poor state of readiness. There was no appropriate plan for a non-flu pandemic; the UK had no capacity for mass testing that might have limited the spread; the health service and care sector were so starved of cash that they were desperately short of protective and other essential equipment; the health establishment was too protective of its fiefdoms; there appeared to be no one able to look at the numbers or what was happening in Italy and see that the initial strategy was going to shatter the NHS and lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Large parts of the emergency architecture had been neglected or failed to function. The death toll in care homes is testimony to a system without a credible plan.

Later the prime minister resisted lockdown, banking on the vaccine to get the country out of the crisis. The gamble ultimately saved him but not 85,000 others.

None of this should come as a revelation. That other nations also did poorly is no mitigation.

The Constitutional Background ...

... continued to worry many commentators and presumably caused real problems for civil servants.  Professor Tim Bale commented as follows in July 2021:

It’s as if Johnson and his colleagues, buoyed up by a largely supportive (if occasionally tetchy) print media, a cowed broadcast media, and an apparently unassailable Commons majority, have realised that – except in the most blindingly obvious, ‘caught in the act and on camera’ cases – the emperor has no clothes. They’ve woken up to the fact that the checks and balances we’ve rather naively assumed would always impose limits on any government, Tory or Labour, can be ignored with little or nothing in the way of consequences, electoral or otherwise.


Martin Stanley

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