The competence and purpose of the civil service is under scrutinyby / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jeremy Heywood and Bob Kerslake have been in charge as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service for nearly two years now. A lot has been achieved, in cutting staff numbers, seeking to remedy weaknesses in the handling of major projects, procurement and commissioning, and in making the government more digitally advanced in its relations with the public.
But the overall picture is patchy. The Civil Service Reform Plan of June 2012 set some ambitious goals but, as Kerslake and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in their introduction to the One Year On report in July this year, “too little of what was set out to be delivered by this point has been fully executed… We were slow to mobilise.”
The Commons Public Administration Committee complained in September that “the lack of strategic vision for the future of the civil service means reform will continue to be confined to a number of disjointed initiatives, some of which may prove permanent, but most of which will either be temporary or will fail to be implemented altogether.” For all the success of the Olympics, there have been too many horror stories in which the civil service has been heavily involved, such as the awarding of the West Coast mainline franchise and the criticisms over universal credit. And there have been ministerial complaints about the competence of officials in, for instance, procurement and getting value for money, as well as about inertia, and, in some cases, obstruction.
Unsurprisingly, civil service morale is not good, both generally, given the tight squeeze on pay and job cuts, and particularly at the top. Permanent secretaries often, but not always, say “it’s fine in my department—I get on with my Secretary of State,” but go on to complain about what is happening elsewhere and of tensions with, and weaknesses in, the leadership at the centre—Number 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.
So here are 10 questions for Kerslake and Heywood.
1. How are they going to persuade David Cameron to take an interest in reform?
Some of this is out of their hands. They have the mixed blessing, in the energetic Francis Maude, of the first minister in a very long time who cares about Whitehall reform and has clear plans, previously largely the preserve of officials. But the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have as a result largely detached themselves from the process when their personal lead is crucial. At present, reform is seen too often as a matter for individual Secretaries of State and Maude. How can Heywood and Kerslake persuade David Cameron to take a lead in creating a coalition for reform among senior ministers and officials?
2. Can they persuade permanent secretaries to work together?
Middle ranking and junior officials are looking for a lead from the civil service leadership. Many permanent secretaries also feel that they are not working well together as a team. After moves away from the traditional baronial style to a more collegiate approach during Gus O’Donnell’s time as Cabinet Secretary, there seems to have been a shift backwards. How are Heywood and Kerslake going to create a more collective approach among permanent secretaries?
3. Can Bob Kerslake continue doing two jobs?
Is the dual leadership between Heywood and Kerslake working? Everyone agrees that the workload is too large for one person and parts of the Cabinet Secretary’s job were often delegated in the past. But does it work to combine the roles of Head of the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary of a demanding department? No one disputes Kerslake’s energy and rare experience of successfully running large organisations, but is the dual role doable without greater support? Certainly, none of their colleagues want the job in its current form.
4. How can “ministers versus mandarins” stories be countered?
Officials complain that no one is standing up for them in face of what they regard as ill-informed and unfair attacks. Many permanent secretaries were furious that there was not a more robust response to the strong personal criticism of Lin Homer, now at HMRC, by the Home Affairs Committee.
Too many permanent secretaries have left their posts early, while there is the fear of being named in the media as a target for dismissal after a briefing by a minister or special advisor to a friendly journalist. This creates a widespread tendency to keep heads down, and a fear that robust advice about the feasability of a proposal will be seen by politicians as obstruction. Heywood and Kerslake need to counter such defensive attitudes more strongly.
5. Can what is happening in departments be reconciled with initiatives by the centre?
At present, far reaching changes are happening in departments as diverse as Education and Defence—and most others have undertaken big internal changes. But there often appears to be little link with what happens at the centre.
6. How can recalcitrant departments be encouraged to reform?
Heywood and Kerslake have backed Maude’s call for stronger central functional leadership in HR, IT procurement and commercial services—as well as the overdue task of improving management and financial information. How do they intend to implement these commitments and overcome resistance from departments?
7. Where is the dividing line between politicians and civil servants?
Heywood and Kerslake appear to be engaged in piecemeal arguments over the desire of secretaries of state to have a greater say over permanent secretary appointments, to bring in more outsiders and to enlarge ministerial offices with more staff directly accountable to a Secretary of State. What are their views on the proper dividing lines between elected politicians and permanent civil servants?
8. Have they started thinking about cuts for the next five years?
This year’s mini-spending review for 2015-16 was merely a prelude to a much bigger exercise after the election. The politicians are naturally reluctant to discuss options ahead of the election. But have Heywood and Kerslake started an exercise—not just confined to the Treasury but across departments—to identify the best possible options for cuts over the next five years? Cross-cutting savings are essential. Now is the time to think about the future.
9. What is the civil service for?
John Browne, the Government’s lead non-executive director, has suggested that the current federal structure of departments is unsustainable and may have to be replaced by a more unified system. Maude has raised a similar question. But where is the vision about the future shape of the civil service, its core purpose, core functions and operating models?
10. Should discussions about reform be made public?
David Cameron has strongly resisted the call from Bernard Jenkin and the Public Administration Committee for a parliamentary commission into the civil service along the lines of the Banking Standards Commission. This is on the grounds that it risks undermining and delaying current reform initiatives. Both Heywood and Kerslake have taken a similar line. But how far can, or should, the necessary debate about the long-term future of Whitehall be conducted in private?
In March 2012, I wrote an open letter to Heywood, Kerslake and Maude stressing the urgency of reform. I quoted Rodney Lowe’s view in his official history of the civil service from 1966 to 1981 that opportunities for reform were missed because of a combination of muddled thinking, vested interests and, above all, a lack of political priorities and will. There are even more serious dangers now. Unless ministers and permanent secretaries work closely together to introduce reforms—rather than eye each other warily and suspiciously—there will be the risk of a downward spiral of cuts, inadequate services and a demoralised civil service.