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. )

Greensill

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.

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?

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 ...

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.

Martin Stanley

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