Not fit for purpose?

What’s wrong with the civil service? Too many mistakes and too cut off from the country
October 16, 2013
















© Getty images

When I revealed in my book Power Trip that I used to spend a good part of every day scouring the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s email inbox and folders, it prompted immediate calls from one Tory MP for me to face prosecution.

I thought it significant that an MP in the current administration would consider it abnormal—even criminal—for a special advisor to patrol the cabinet and civil service papers being sent to his or her minister. Not to unearth potential stories to leak, which would be abnormal under any government, but simply to keep abreast of anything that their minister was being asked to agree to or sign, and to ensure that there were no hidden horrors to avoid.

Ninety per cent of the time that was what I was doing, trawling through those papers and submissions, and thank heavens I did. There were hundreds of occasions over the years when I’d get to paragraph 46 of a civil service submission—my eyes swimming with boredom—and see the killer line that meant some apparently innocuous proposal was actually a ticking bomb: “Individuals widowed before 1948 will be significant losers, but their numbers are relatively small,” or “There will be some retrospective impact on the beneficiaries of recent group legal settlements.”

Years of this work taught me two things. First, that someone needs to be doing that job if a minister is going to avoid cocking-up on a regular basis. But second, and more importantly, that left to its own devices, the civil service will always eventually get its ministers in trouble, because many officials either cannot see potential presentational problems—even the iceberg-sized variety—or worse still, don’t care about them as long as the policy is “right.”

Looking at the current administration from the outside, I see a dangerous trade-off at work. On small but potentially explosive issues, ministers seem content to pass the proposals of their civil servants without rigorously testing them. But almost more worrying, civil servants are expected to stay silent when ministers are pursuing their own big and equally explosive changes, no matter what doubts they may have.

Look at the spiralling costs of HS2 or universal credit, the unintended consequences of Help to Buy or the bedroom tax, or the presentational shambles of forest privatisation and National Health Service reform. It is clear that in every case, the civil service is either not providing effective advice and scrutiny, not being listened to, or is being allowed to push things through without sufficient checks from ministers or their advisors. Wherever the problem lies, it comes back to the civil service not being “fit for purpose,” to use my old friend John Reid’s phrase. And, to my mind, that is at least in part because the men and women who make up and lead the civil service are increasingly disconnected from the society they purport to serve.

Almost three years ago, as he enjoyed his valedictory year as Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell allowed himself a pat on the back. “The civil service is now a genuinely meritocratic organisation,” he declared. The reason for his self-congratulation was the promotion of Bronwyn Hill to lead the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, meaning that, for the first time, there were eight women and eight men at the top of the 16 major home civil service departments. “A pool of permanent secretaries that’s 50:50 women and men for the first time,” O’Donnell said. “I’m proud of that.”

By those standards, progress in opening up the civil service has stalled—or even reversed—in the years since O’Donnell’s departure. Now only four of those top 16 departments are female-led, and of the 38 individuals currently at permanent secretary grade in the civil service, only six are women—a dismal 15 per cent. The loss of Nemat Shafik from the Department for International Development not only reduced female numbers at the top of the civil service, it also removed the only permanent secretary who was from a minority ethnic group.

Given these recent trends, Gus O’Donnell’s successors in the Cabinet Office—Jeremy Heywood and Bob Kerslake—could be forgiven for resolving to restore the emphasis on equalising the gender gap and tackling the embarrassing absence of “people of colour.” If they do so, they will not only be deluding themselves that this is the route to meritocracy, they will be wasting years fighting the wrong battle. Instead, they must tackle the real causes of the increasing disconnect between the civil service and the rest of the country.

Heywood and Kerslake need to stop and consider the parallels with the House of Commons, and the efforts that different parties are making there to resolve their own “diversity” problems. Under Tony Blair, New Labour made great strides—often against great resistance—in opening up its processes for selecting parliamentary candidates in order to actively favour women and people of colour. Less conspicuously, the move away from locally-managed, Buggins’ turn selection processes to more centrally-imposed shortlists and candidates resulted in a younger group of Labour MPs entering parliament during its time in office.

Under David Cameron, the Conservatives tried to replicate this model through their “A list” of candidates who were to be given assumed preference in target seats. While dogged with problems, the “A list” process at least meant the Tories’ 2010 intake of new MPs was its brightest, most diverse and youthful in years. Surprisingly, it is the Liberal Democrats who have brought up the rear, struggling to make the composition of their parliamentary party less male and less white. The problem is not helped by the fact that their emphasis in 2015 will be keeping the seats they hold, rather than bringing in new candidates.

Since the 2010 election, Labour has imposed a quota system for the proportion of women in the Shadow Cabinet, while David Cameron struggles with a de facto “one-in, one-out” rule for women in his top team, and Nick Clegg struggles to know where to start.

Anyone looking at this from the outside—including Messrs Heywood and Kerslake—would surely want to measure their progress against the Labour Party, and see where it is heading next. If they did, they would see something fascinating, and even troubling. Labour MPs Jon Trickett and Gloria De Piero, along with others in the party, are beginning to realise that, for all the admirable and much-needed work that has been done to bring more women and people of colour into the parliamentary party and reducing its average age, they have in some ways been aiming at the wrong targets.

Nothing the party has done to date has succeeded in tackling the growing gulf between the type of person routinely selected as a Labour MP and the constituents they are employed to represent. Trickett and De Piero believe that this gap is one of the reasons for the steady erosion of public trust in our politicians. They argue that political parties need to go beyond the visible barriers to becoming an MP—gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability or age—and to focus on the hidden obstacles created by background, educational attainment, income and parental responsibilities. Most important of all, they say, political parties have to tackle the widespread perception that the job of an MP is not one for “people like me.” What is needed, in short, is a broader definition of diversity.

Now, if Heywood and Kerslake spend their time in office trying to restore the 50:50 gender split of permanent secretaries in top departments, or discover and promote the next Nemat Shafik, they will only have succeeded in taking us back to where we were in 2011, using the same old definition of diversity. Until we get away from the model of the phlegmatic, wiser-than-thou, change-resistant, first-class-honours-from-Brasenose-knighthood-by-the-age-of-50 civil servant, it does not matter whether they are white, black, male or female—the individuals at the top of the civil service will still have nothing in common with 99.9 per cent of people in Britain, and almost zero understanding of how the world really works. Miscalculations like the bedroom tax and Help to Buy will simply keep happening.


So how should Heywood and Kerslake approach this problem? They should start, as Labour has done, by looking at the profile of new recruits. In the case of Labour, prospective parliamentary candidates; for the civil service, entrants to graduate “fast stream” schemes.

As the top department within the home civil service, the Treasury requires any fast stream applicants to have attained the minimum of a 2:1 degree at university. Their recruitment literature states that “we want to do everything we can to ensure that we reflect the society we serve,” but that simple criterion would this year automatically exclude almost two-thirds of young people from the “class of 2013” because they either did not go to university or failed to get the requisite class of degree.

Not only that, but of the minority of young people eligible to apply, the same bias which applies to university admissions generally kicks in: more girls than boys; more southerners than northerners; and disproportionate numbers of young people from affluent backgrounds and better schools.

Next, consider the recruitment forms, tests and interviews. If you go from a comprehensive school to a non-Oxbridge, non-Russell Group university, the chances are that you would apply for the Treasury fast stream scheme without having completed any kind of entrance exam or admissions interview before. In contrast, a young person from a grammar school and an Oxbridge college will apply to join the Treasury scheme with a good deal of experience of such processes.

You could spend a long time meeting Treasury fast streamers before coming across a male from a working-class background and a comprehensive school in the north of England. Is it any wonder when the recruitment criteria and processes preclude the vast majority from applying?

This matters if you assume, as Trickett and De Piero do, that we are missing out on the talents of a vast number of intelligent, hugely creative and politically astute individuals. These are people who could never get their foot in the door of a civil service department—let alone have the chance to rise to the most senior positions.

Take the Treasury: what happens to successful candidates once they are recruited, and how does this affect the task facing Heywood and Kerslake? The best of the new fast streamers will inevitably end up with jobs on the Treasury’s second floor, working in open-plan areas alongside the carpeted corridor of offices occupied by the Chancellor, his ministers, special advisors and permanent secretary.

From the staff in the press office and the budget team to the private secretaries and speechwriters in the offices of George Osborne and Danny Alexander, the occupants of these posts are the crème de la crème within an already highly-refined pool of civil servants. Crucially, it is almost exclusively from this group that the appointments to top posts in 10 Downing Street have been made in recent years; this is the ultimate fast track into roles as directors and permanent secretaries, within touching distance of the Cabinet Secretary’s job, the pinnacle of the profession.

The current Principal Private Secretary (PPS) to David Cameron—effectively the top civil servant in Number 10—is Chris Martin, a former Treasury Head of Communications. Three of the last four official civil service spokesmen for the Prime Minister have all been former Treasury Heads of Communication. It was by that route that Gus O’Donnell eventually became Cabinet Secretary.

Being a top civil service aide to the Chancellor has almost become a pre-requisite for getting a senior post in Number 10. Prior to Martin, the role of PPS had been held by four fast stream graduates of Ken Clarke’s or Gordon Brown’s Treasury private office, and one who was Brown’s key advisor on public spending. This is the route that Heywood took to the top job.

It could be argued that, since the Treasury gets the best recruits to the home civil service then their further ascendance to the top jobs in Number 10 is simply a case of natural selection doing its work. It could also be argued that there is no better training for those Number 10 jobs than their equivalent Treasury posts, and that the preference for Treasury staff reflects the centrality of the economy to the work of Number 10 (as well as the fact that George Osborne is recommending people who he thinks are up to the job.)

However, if every time there is a vacancy in a senior Number 10 post, it is filled from the same narrow gene pool of top Treasury staff, all with similar outlooks and experiences, there is a clear risk of entrenching the homogeneity which already exists in the civil service fast stream, leading to a loss of fresh, or even just different, ways of thinking about and doing the job. And like any narrow gene pool, the longer that cycle of recruitment is unbroken, the more the effects are multiplied. Given that interviewers tend to select the candidate who most resembles themselves, the fact that almost all of the individuals in the most senior posts recruited each other at various points reinforces the trend, as does their having all come top of the fast stream selection process in the first place.

Since these individuals are generally the best and brightest that Whitehall has to offer, this could be viewed as no bad thing. But here we return to the problem we encountered earlier: that does not necessarily equate to the best and brightest that Britain has to offer. If they really want to reform the civil service, Heywood and Kerslake need not just to break the glass ceilings against promotion for women and people of colour, but also to smash down the external walls which prevent so many talented people ever being considered for civil service roles.

How could they do this? First, all graduate recruitment schemes should be abolished and replaced with a young people’s scheme which invites anyone aged 18 to 30 to apply for posts on the fast stream. Instead of the university-style entrance tests and interviews, those young people should be invited to submit—whether in writing, by film or down a phone line—an idea for one practical, common sense thing they would do to change the country or their community for the better. The best of them could then be invited to present their ideas to each other in regional groups. A panel of non-civil servants observing the discussions could then choose for the scheme the most intelligent, thoughtful and creative individuals from each group, improving the regional balance of recruits in the process.

Second, the civil service must open up the way it makes its appointments, especially for the top jobs in the Treasury, Number 10 and other main departments, in order to curb the tendency for civil servants simply to recruit in their own image. It must allow and encourage external applicants wherever possible, and also introduce independent assessors and interviewers into the process.

Third, the civil service needs to take a leaf out of the Trickett/De Piero book, and actively look to recruit outsiders to the system.

Fourth, civil servants should be conducting presentations sector-by-sector across the country, from schools and hospitals to charities and factories, particularly targeted at younger people who did not attend university, explaining the challenges and opportunities available in the civil service and encouraging their applications.

The truth is that political parties will find it extremely difficult to broaden the base from which they select potential MPs, because of all the financial and practical barriers that lie in the way, and the public mistrust of the profession of politics. By comparison, widening the field of civil servants we recruit should be relatively easy, provided we remove some of the unnecessary restrictions on who is able to apply and change the way we assess their calibre.

Why does this matter now? Because whatever the outcome of the next election, the civil service faces real change. If the Conservatives lead the government after 2015, there is no doubt they will be gunning for the civil service, with the ground for Francis Maude’s vision of a much larger cadre of ministerially-appointed special advisors in senior roles prepared for—as far as the Tories are concerned—by the way Michael Gove has driven through his educational reforms.

If Labour is in charge, the changes will be different. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have started to signal a radical shift in approach to the business of government, with more decisions to be taken out of the hands of ministers and given to independent bodies, and a longer-term approach adopted on areas of spending that have previously suffered from short-term pressures.

The civil service can either drive the change that Miliband and Balls wish to see, or be caught up in its wake. It can either disprove Maude’s argument that more political appointees are needed at the top of government, or sit and take their orders. One way or another, Heywood and Kerslake need to reform the civil service or watch it lose its relevance and authority after 2015.

That process starts with recognising that the make-up of the civil service needs to change. This is not a matter of playing catch-up with the political parties when it comes to getting more women and people of colour into its ranks, but of being in the vanguard of breaking down the barriers to true diversity, and building a civil service that is genuinely “a meritocratic organisation” and reflects the country it serves.