There will be many further challenges before this government is through, writes a former head of the Brexit departmentby Philip Rycroft / November 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
An audible sigh of relief swept through virtual Whitehall last Friday night as Dominic Cummings picked up his box and left Downing Street for the last time. The man who had promised a “hard rain” on the civil service will not be around to make the weather.
At the centre of government for little over a year, Cummings did not have time to stamp his vision on an organisation as big and complex and enduring as the civil service. That is not to say that he did not shock the system. The centralisation of power in No 10, with all special advisers reporting directly to him, shifted the distribution of influence in Whitehall. The creation of mission control in the Cabinet Office in 70 Whitehall signalled a new approach to managing the delivery performance of departments. The discomfort at the top of the civil service and the unanticipated departure of several permanent secretaries was doubtless down in part to his disdain for the organisation and all its works.
Cummings was coruscating in his criticism of what he saw as the failings of the civil service and the UK system of governance more generally. He was clear on what he did not like, but less clear on what might come in its wake. He leaves behind no settled blueprint for reform. Nor is it certain which, if any, of his innovations will survive his exit. Already, it appears that management of special advisers will revert to the secretaries of state they serve. It would be no surprise if Cummings’s successors abandon his control centre and drift back to be in closer orbit of the Prime Minister in No 10.
So is that it? Will his legacy be as ephemeral as that of some of his predecessors who tore through Whitehall like a winter gale but left little trace behind? The more thoughtful civil servants will pause before assuming that the storm has really passed.
For all the hype and pseudo-scientific mystique, there was a kernel of hard truth in the Cummings critique of Whitehall. The civil service has become too disconnected from the country it seeks to serve. The senior elite of policymakers work mostly within a mile radius of Downing Street. The Whitehall ethic is broadly a centralising one. As the pandemic has once…