Failures and scandal behind past reforms

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THE HISTORY of Whitehall is a story of long periods of routine punctuated by occasional orgies of reform when the system broke down, or when scandal and outraged public opinion moved those in authority to inquire and then to act.

So writes Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, the University of London, in his seminal book, Whitehall.

In deciding which factor is responsible for the discussions culminating in the forthcoming White Paper you take your pick. Either could be correct; both are almost certainly the right answer.

According to Sir Peter Kemp, a former permanent secretary and himself the architect of many of the reforms currently gripping the Civil Service, morale is poor.

William Plowden, a former senior civil servant, said in a recent pamphlet that relations between some ministers and their mandarins exhibit a 'worrying deterioration'.

An ICM opinion poll found the public's trust in civil servants - once revered for their integrity, honesty and impartiality - is now only slightly above that of politicians and members of the Government. Only 21 per cent of people trusted civil servants compared to 13 per cent for politicians and 11 per cent for the Government. For all three, unaccountability has become an acceptable and frequently used last line of defence.

MPs have felt moved to conduct a long-ranging inquiry into the role of the civil servant. For many observers, the Treasury and Civil Service sub-committee, chaired by Giles Radice, appears to have touched a nerve by asking to be allowed to conduct an 'attitudes survey'.

So violent has been the opposition, led by William Waldegrave, Minister of Public Service and Science, and Sir Robin Butler, Head of the Home Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary, to apparently such an innocuous request that critics have been forced to conclude they really do have something to hide.

Mr Waldegrave and Sir Robin insist that participating in such surveys would compromise the impartiality of civil servants and represent the thin end of wedge. The notion of civil servants as 'seen and not heard' would be undermined.

But Lord Callaghan, former Labour prime minister, has expressed serious doubts about a civil service which has now spent 15 years serving the same government. A junior civil servant in 1979 should by now have reached middle to high rank. His entire career advancement would be owed to one party.

Hanging over everything has been the spectre of Scott. It can be no coincidence that as the inquiry into arms to Iraq draws to a close, so the Government is steeling itself for sweeping changes.

Lord Justice Scott is now drafting his report. His hearings exposed shortcomings including lack of communication between departments and mutual distrust.

There is another reason for the move, which does not sit easily with the Hennessy view. After swinging the spotlight of efficiency and cost- saving through every branch of the state for the past 15 years, the Government machine is looking in the mirror.

It is not a pretty sight. While departments and functions have been market- tested, disbanded and privatised, and more than 300,000 mainly junior to middle jobs have been farmed out to newly-created agencies, the old senior structure has remained more or less intact and impervious to change.

Jobs that elsewhere would routinely be advertised openly and subject to public competition, are filled by a process that remains hidden and mysterious. Contracts of senior mandarins - whatever the unions might claim - are rarely terminated. Performance-related pay belongs to a world far beyond the cosy confines of Horseguards.

To the consternation of Tory right-wingers, senior civil servants have so far escaped the axe. Male-dominated, mainly Oxbridge, public school-educated, immune from criticism, they belong to a different age.

Initiatives to scale back some of the most historically monolithic departments like social security with the creation of the Benefits Agency and employment, have worked well. The ultimate ambition now, say Whitehall insiders, may be to reach a 'core' civil service, comprising a few hundred mandarins in essential positions.

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