Yes it needs reform – but government has only itself to blame for a lot of its problems with the civil service

So the government is finding it tough going with the civil service. Ministers are said to be highly frustrated that the civil service, far from being the thrusting champion of change that they had hoped for, is acting as a drag anchor on the pace of reform.

But the government has only itself to blame for a lot of its problems.

First, it deliberately dismantled the political machine in No 10 that co-ordinated and drove a lot of the government’s programme. It was David Cameron’s decision to use civil servants in place of special advisors as his core advisory team. That was foolish and  has limited his capacity to keep tabs on what was happening on key policies across Whitehall. In five years of working at No 10 and three as a special adviser in a Whitehall department the Blair government was at its most effective when it used a combination of a small team of SPADs backed by the Delivery Unit to maintain policy coherence and delivery impetus.

Second, a policy of continually rubbishing civil servants is hardly likely to be the most effective strategy for getting the best out of them. Nor does it help with encouraging the best and the brightest to join the civil service. I always started from the default position that civil servants wanted to help us achieve our policy objectives – and for the vast majority of the time I was proved right. There were groups and individuals that did not seem to possess either the capacity or the inclination to progress the government’s agenda but it was much more effective to isolate and work round the few rather than damn the many.

Moreover even when we found that were was a systemic weakness key officials were generally up for addressing the problem even if it meant radical change. For example, early on in the life of the Blair government, civil servants in the Department of Health were struggling – to use a Sir Humphreyism – to put together a coherent strategy for cutting NHS waiting times and numbers. There was an infamous meeting when Frank Dobson and Alan Milburn, along with their advisers and me as the Prime Minister’s adviser, confronted the NHS Executive team over the lack of progress. But over a two-year period we worked together to assemble a range of policies that became one of the signal achievements of the Blair years.

Third, the government has not been as coherent and strategic in its thinking as it should have been. We have had lots of initiatives and programmes but all too often both the end objectives and the strategy have not been clear.

Fourth, expecting an organisation to perform at its optimum when it is being radically downsized is quite an ask. It is possible to effect  major changes while culling up to 50 per cent of staff – but it requires high level people management skills to navigate the uncertainty and disruption that reorganisation causes. Ministers are clearly not excelling themselves in this regard. And if you are going to have a bonfire of the Quangos then fine – but  be prepared for some disruption particularly (as was the case with teacher professional misconduct) if you have not thought through the consequences of your action.

The civil service is far from perfect. It is too compartmentalised. It  does not have enough outstanding thinkers, leaders and programme managers. As my former boss, Jonathan Powell, has argued it should be easier to bring in people into the civil service from other sectors. The career structure of the civil service should encourage civil servants to spend time in other demanding roles in industry and public service. Civil servants should be able to gain advancement by developing in-depth policy expertise rather than by jumping on to the  carousel of 18 month postings to different roles.

So let’s have the debate on how the civil service should be reformed but let’s also give them the opportunity and support they need to address the current agenda.


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