Civil Service Reform 23

This note summarises developments from around April 2021 through to the end of that year

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.”

Reporting on civil service appointments later in the year, Policy Exchange (see below) thought that:

The third, and most concerning finding, is that whenever Greensill encountered official resistance to his demands, or whenever official concerns were raised about propriety and ethics, Lord Heywood was able to override objections. This included securing an administrative home for Greensill in the Economic and Domestic Secretariat after both the Efficiency and Reform Group and the No 10 Policy Unit had refused to provide one, writing directly to the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary to secure him a No 10 building pass, and smoothing over conflicts of interest that were identified. It is essential that such a situation does not recur in the future if public trust in the Civil Service is to be maintained.

Further detail may be found in these reports:

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.

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.

Coincidentally, there was quite a flurry of well-meaning reports published in 2021.

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 (and a link to my blog on the subject) is here.

Government Reimagined

I commented as follows on Government Reimagined published by Policy Exchange.

There have, since 2007, been over 30 think tank reports on government in general and the civil service in particular, and another large number published by various parliamentary committees and the government itself. The latest report, ‘Government Reimagined’, is (I think) the first from Policy Exchange. It is, like so many of its predecessors, well-researched, sensible and full of good ideas.

Inevitably, though, most of the the proposals have already been made time and time again, and often accepted time and time again – and then forgotten or watered down. Cross-departmental regional hubs, anyone? Or greater diversity? What about Ministerial training? Or greater senior official responsibility ‘with commensurate accountability and reward’ – during austerity? And wouldn’t it be a good idea if “civil servants [were to] stay in key jobs for longer so expertise is built and collective memory achieved? Tell that to Permanent Secretaries on fixed term contracts, trying to lead departments in which they have no prior experience.

A large part of the problem is that many of the recommendations raise difficult constitutional questions to which there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. The only people who can answer these questions are politicians themselves, and they repeatedly fail to do so. In particular:

  • Do they want to abandon the advantages of Cabinet government (and the possible pleasure of being a proper Cabinet Minister) in order to gain the advantages of centralised command and control?
  • Do they want senior officials to be responsible for achieving worthwhile outcomes (and to stride more quickly through ‘the treacle’) if that needs those same officials to make politically unpopular decisions. (As one commentator noted recently, If there were a big red button labelled ‘Improve Environment without Annoying Anyone’ it would have been pressed long ago. )

It is now 14 years since Christopher Hood and Martin Lodge identified Civil Service Reform Syndrome:- “a rash of … attempts to fix up the bureaucracy, with the same pattern of hype from the centre, selective filtering at the extremities and political attention deficit syndrome that works against any follow-through and continuity”. Will the reports published over the next 14 years be taken more seriously by our political leaders?

Open, Meritocratic and Transparent

Policy Exchange then published the above-named report on 'Reforming Civil Service Appointments', building on its earlier Government Reimagined report - see above.  This report is very detailed but its foreword described two recommendations as 'compelling':

First, the importance of opening up all senior posts to external competition: a commitment often made but ... all too often ignored. ... Ventilating [departments] to greater competition encourage[s] everyone to raise their performance, discouraging complacency and incentivising ... lifers such as myself to raise our game.

Secondly, the Civil Service Commission needs to be strengthened to play a greater regulatory role. More interchange between the private and public sectors will require much greater safeguards around conflicts of interest. Here, the Government can learn from independent institutions, such as the Bank of England, and other countries. If strengthened regulation involves greater statutory powers, so be it. Self regulation has failed.  As Gladstone might have asked, and the current Prime Minister would understand, “quis custodiet ipsos custodes”?.

Civil Service COO Alex Chisholm ...

...was interviewed by Beckie Smith just before the declaration summarised below.  The interview is an interesting snapshot of Cabinet Office thinking and planning around this time.

Declaration on Government Reform

This promising sounding paper was signed by both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary on 15 June 2021.  Reflecting on the numerous very serious problems caused by the COVID pandemic, they reported that 'the Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries met today and have committed themselves to a collective vision for reform, agreeing immediate action on three fronts:

a.  people - ensuring that the right people are working in the right places with the right incentives;
b.  performance - modernising the operation of government, being clear-eyed about our priorities, and objective in our evaluation of what is and is not working; and
c.   partnership - strengthening the bond between Ministers and officials, always operating as one team from policy through to delivery, and between central government and institutions outside it.

Speaking the same day, Michael Gove talked very positively about the Declaration and also about the forthcoming paper by the Commission for Smart Government - see below. 

It remained to be seen, of course, whether both the declaration and the speech amounted to anything other than empty promises by a government that was generally reckoned to be very poor at delivering anything, led by a what many regarded as a particularly inept Prime Minister.  The ever-polite Institute for Government quite rightly welcomed the declaration, but noted that 'some of the toughest problems of government reform have been ducked'. 

But .. the declaration did say that 'What counts is ... not what we say but what we do' and listed no less than 30 action points to be taken by the end of 2021.  It also said that 'The government will work transparently, and report regularly on our progress'.   We shall see ...

(Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay reported in March 2022 that the government was 'finalising the scope and approach' of forthcoming reviews into civil service governance and accountability.)

Four Steps for Reform

There was some very good stuff in the ‘Four Steps for Reform report’ published by the Commission for Smart Government. It was in particular genuinely ‘government reform’ document, and not just ‘civil service reform’.  I commented as follows at the time:

I can hardly improve on Alex Thomas’ commentary on the report, published by the IfG.  Alex particularly applauds the fact that the commission recognises that it is time to treat ministers, civil servants and officials across the wider public sector less as separate tribes and more as fellow professionals who have different roles in serving the public. And he is right, I think, when he says that few would mourn the loss of cabinet committees if they were to be replaced with a more effective oversight, co-ordination and implementation group.

But the Commission’s headline recommendations were very dangerous.    They want to create

  • a ‘powerful’ new prime minister’s department, sitting alongside …
  • a Ministerial Centre, bringing all ministers’ together in one building, away from their officials, and including …
  • a new Treasury Board charged with the Treasury’s current spending responsibilities and operating a ‘Plan for Government’ replacing the current spending review.

This feels even worse than Presidential government.  It creates a corporate centre where everyone would focus on the wishes of the Prime Minister/Chief Executive.  Individual ministers would be detached from their departmental experts who know what is happening on the ground – and so will be much less likely to challenge the PM.  The Chancellor would no longer be able to challenge crazy spending decisions. And the Prime Minister would have strong enforcers in his/her own enlarged department.

The Commission’s underlying assumption seems to be that the current government’s failures (Covid, Brexit implementation, social care?) can be blamed on over-mighty departments resisting the clear, carefully considered and sensible leadership from No.10.   I readily accept that Cabinet Government hasn’t worked well – or hardly at all – since 2016.  But that is surely because of excessive centralisation of power. Theresa May famously worked in near total isolation from her colleagues.  (Chancellor Hammond never saw key speeches before she made them.)  And Boris Johnson deliberately appointed Cabinet ministers who could be relied upon never to challenge him. 

The Commission has come up with some sensible sounding – radical even – ideas for improving the way in which different parts of government work together.  Like the IfG, I hope that these are taken seriously.  But please don’t let us give Prime Ministers any more power than they have now.

Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme

The need to create an economic stimulus during the COVID pandemic led to yet another badly botched "green" scheme.  Here is an extract fro the summary of an NAO report released in September 2021.  It reveals some appalling failure of ministerial and/or official policy-making and implementation.  (Emphasis added)

Background to the report

Reducing carbon emissions to achieve net zero by 2050 will require wide-ranging changes to the UK economy; including further investment in renewable electricity generation, as well as changing the way people travel, how land is used and how buildings are heated. Buildings account for around 19% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions.  The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (the Department) has overall responsibility across government for achieving net zero. In July 2020, as part of the government’s ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the Department’s Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme (the scheme). This offered homeowners the opportunity to apply for up to £5,000 funding (£10,000 for low-income households) to install energy efficiency improvements and low carbon heat measures in their homes. Homeowners were expected to identify a certified installer and apply for vouchers with the installer receiving the grant funding once they had fitted the measure. The Department expected the scheme to run between September 2020 and March 2021, support up to 82,500 jobs over six months and enable up to 600,000 households to save up to £600 on their energy bills.


Report conclusions

The government has identified decarbonising home heating as a key part of its plan to deliver net zero by 2050. In establishing the Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme, the Department worked at an ambitious pace to deliver a scheme which would contribute to this long-term aim while delivering a short-term economic boost. However, the tension between these two key aims and the short delivery time was never properly reconciled leading to an overly complex scheme that could not be delivered to a satisfactory level of performance in the time available. Should all current applications be processed, the scheme will have upgraded an expected 47,500 homes, at a cost to the taxpayer of about £314 million. Of this, £50.5 million is for programme management and administrative expenses, amounting to more than £1,000 per home upgraded. Despite the Department’s considerable efforts, the rushed delivery and implementation of the scheme has significantly reduced the benefits that might have been achieved, caused frustration for homeowners and installers, and had limited impact on job creation for the longer term.

The Department and external assurance highlighted several risks of proceeding quickly, but the Department accepted these risks. The fast pace constrained its procurement options, and its engagement with the installer market and, coupled with the short duration of the scheme, made it hard for energy efficiency installers to mobilise to meet demand. While we recognise the desire to act quickly in the interests of delivering an economic stimulus, the government should be prepared to limit or delay the launch of a programme if the evidence suggests it is not ready. Previous government attempts to deliver energy efficiency schemes, such as for the Green Deal, have amply illustrated the difficulties of achieving successful delivery in this area. It is important that the Department and HM Treasury heed the lessons from this, and previous schemes, for any future domestic decarbonisation programme.

Michael Gove defended the Civil Service ...

Following some anonymous (ministerial) briefing, critical of the performance of the civil service during the Covid pandemic, the Minister for the Cabinet Office issued this generous tribute.

... whilst (some) Permanent Secretaries continued to suck up to Ministers.

This tweet was published in August 2021.

Policy Profession Standards

The Policy Profession updated its 'Standards' towards the end of 2021.  The (fairly short) main document is here and the more detailed annex is here

One ex-Permanent Secretary subsequently commented that the problem was that the standards were frequently ignored.

Simon Case - One Year On

Cabinet Secretary Simon case delivered a speech in October 2021 reflecting on his first year in office.

Early on in the speech he drew a parallel between the Covid pandemic ("an inflection point in the UK's history") and the period after the Second World  War which represented a missed opportunity to hold onto the lessons learned in wartime about about how ti run government more effectively.  He was determined, he said, to hold on to the lessons learned during the pandemic:

"We should take heart from the successes of our response: those areas where ministers and civil servants – even the nation – can take pride in a job well done.
Of course; the rapid development and rollout of vaccines; the furlough scheme which has supported 11 million livelihoods; the swift expansion of Universal Credit; the ‘Everyone In’ campaign that saw homeless people given shelter.
Successes pulled off by diverse teams, working together with common purpose.
These achievements, and the part we played in them, reveal the best that the Civil Service can be. Skilled, innovative, ambitious. More confident, more spirited. Less risk averse - less hostage to process.
Working in partnership across organisations and in lockstep with the private sector. We’ve shown we can be the best in the service of our country.
Alongside this, we also need to acknowledge our weaknesses – none of which will come as a surprise to those who know the Civil Service.
Cumbersome processes and siloed working, slowing us down and hindering best practice. Confusion at times about who was responsible for what.
Failing to work consistently well across national and local government, and missing the value of expertise on the ground. Weaknesses in how we gather, handle and present data. And our longstanding lack of specialist scientific and technical knowledge.
We need to fix these weaknesses – and I know we can – to help spearhead a recovery from COVID and truly deliver levelling up.

There was an intriguing comment towards the end of the speech, as follows: 

"If I look back now to when I first joined the Civil Service, the received wisdom was that it was good at policy and poor at delivery.  Over the course of my career, I believe this has been inverted. ... Trust in us is vested in the impartial advice we offer; and in the truth we speak unto power. We jeopardise this at our peril, for reputations can be lost easier and faster than ever they are won." 

Many observers (myself included) would agree that this was true, partly because ministers now wanted to be supported by courtiers rather than those who speak truth to power.  But there was no indication in the rest of the speech that Mr Case had any plans to improve the civil service's policy making performance.

From Wartime to Peacetime: Lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce

Kate Bingham's above-titled Romanes Lecture criticised the lack of relevant skills in the modern civil service as well as its culture.


Click here to read about further developments in 2022.


Martin Stanley

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