Most governments come into office with high regard for the civil service, the legacy of Victorian reforms that made jobs dependent on exams
Now here’s a tricky one for the ideologues. The Tory-led coalition is floating the idea that Britain should reverse 150 years of cherished tradition and create a much more politicised model of civil service, one whose senior figures change when the government changes – as in France or the US.
I can understand that. But surely the stereotype we are accustomed to is one that lazily says it’s Labour governments that politicise the civil service? Yet here we are, two years into the coalition, and David Cameron’s pious insistence that he would reverse Tony Blair’s over-reliance on politically-appointed special advisers has long been abandoned.
There are now as many spads as there were before – 85 (Labour’s peak figure in 2004) compared with 66 after Cameron first took over on a “slim down Whitehall” manifesto.
No surprise there for anyone who follows these things closely, I imagine. It was a priggish promise, the kind of thing inexperienced politicians say in opposition before they learn the hard way as Tony Blair did in his first term. Cameron may still say, as he did in evidence to MPs only last month, that he doesn’t want a “fundamental change” to the Franco-US system, only an impartial civil service that is “more fleet of foot”. But it’s the way his government’s actions are actually taking us.
As Patrick Wintour explains in today’s Guardian Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister unlucky enough to be in charge of civil service reform, is commissioning research – from OUTSIDE the civil service, of course – on how best to introduce a more competitive and accountable element into the Whitehall bureaucracy.
Nothing wrong in learning from other people, including our cousins in Australia and New Zealand, says Frankie. Quite right too. In our wired world it is both easier and financially imperative to get smarter in everything we do.
There are several things going on here. In June, Maude announced tougher terms for a tighter and smaller core civil service – the sort of thing that successive governments, Jim Callaghan’s as well as Margaret Thatcher’s since the 70s, called for – including a weeding-out of the under-performing bottom 10%.
It is harder to do than it sounds, even without strong resistance by civil service unions, but cuts and out-sourcing to private or “arms length” bodies has dramatically trimmed overall numbers. Better value for our money? As always the record is patchy. When I tried to find how much state pension I would be getting I failed to access the DWP’s online service. It wouldn’t let me type more than “MICHA …” whenever I tried to log on. But passports are now brilliant.
The awkward fact is that most governments, certainly Blair’s, come into office with a high regard for Britain’s “Rolls-Royce” civil service, the legacy of mid-Victorian reforms that made jobs dependent on competitive exams, not patronage or outright purchase. In those days you could still buy a commission in the army too, much as James Boswell was trying to do in his hilarious London Journal, published a century earlier.
But the senior officials inertia, their obsession with process instead of results, their ability to control policy – and block radical reform – while ensuring that the elected politicians took/take the blame produces a frustrated reaction and pressures that now ensure that officials too have to face select committees in front of the media – as recent rows over banking, immigration, border control and much else shows. It is all more open and accountable than it used to be and senior officials are moved or even retired early more than they were.
It is still not enough for free market enthusiasts. Here’s what Andrew Haldenby of the Reform pressure group wrote after Maude’s June speech. Reform wants much more radical change to the NHS and the other public services. Senior officials should be put on contract and expect to be moved or fired when a new government comes in, Haldenby says. Michael Gove and Teresa May argued as much last year, but Maude watered down such proposals.
Harold Wilson’s 1974-76 Labour government first introduced political appointees, usually experts who could counter the official Whitehall policy line, but also media specialists and apparatchiks able to do political work which civil servants can’t and won’t do. But it was Margaret Thatcher, forceful and impatient, who asked “is he one of us?” about the kind of high flyers seeking promotion.
I think she meant “can do” types, people who wouldn’t say “yes, minister, but” all the time like Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister, a TV sit-com she liked so much that she appeared on it once. In fairness to Thatcher she liked people who stood up to her, so saying a policy would be folly did not automatically doom an official. Maggie loved a row.
I suspect that under Blair and – especially – Brown a culture of accommodating what No 10 wanted reached unhealthy levels. The Treasury was badly damaged. It is also part of the Iraq story, though the spectacle of past and present officials saying ” Not me, guv” to the Chilcot inquiry looked very unimpressive. Perhaps it helped galvanise Maude.
The danger is, as with much constitutional reform (AV voting and Lords reform for example?) that a policy shift can be presented as a panacea for all our woes. Politicised bureaucracies can blunder just as badly as inert but impartial ones. So can outsourced arms length agencies which blunder but still leave the home secretary or the health secretary carrying the can – as Andrew Lansley and Teresa May are discovering.
That’s another lesson of Iraq. The political desk warriors at the Pentagon and CIA debauched the policymaking process – overruling the cautious diplomats at the state department and their military expert of a boss, Colin Powell – on a far more spectacular scale than happened in Whitehall in 2001-03. Why? Because they were both arrogant and incompetent, willing to suborn process and even the US constitution to create a virtual state of emergency that has not yet ended.
A robust and independent civil service, willing to stand up to here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians and their sometimes thuggish bagmen, remains important. Yes, it’s wrong that officials hide problems, statistics and awkward facts from their political boss (Treasury officials are more frank with the chancellor than they are with No 10, but much more frank with each other), but it’s right that they try to keep naive or foolish ideas out of harm’s way.
So let’s give Maude a one-handed clap for pushing on with his thankless task and hope he finds a few good ideas. That privately-run NHS hospital, Hinchingbrooke in Huntingdon, is reporting rapid improvements this morning. Who knows, it might be on to something important for NHS care. But don’t expect miracles – or panaceas.
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