Mandarins inch painfully into the 21st century

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The Independent Online
Well, well, well! Two White Papers on the Civil Service within six months. Since the only important previous White Paper that looked at the Civil Service as a whole was probably the Northcote Trevelyan Report of 1854, this shows not only that the pace ofchange is pretty hot, but also that the Government and the senior mandarins are finally recognising it. When it was just a series of distant wars and we were just looking at changes in the "invisible" civil service that takes up about 90 per cent of thewhole, the top dogs were not much worried. Now they can hear the guns from the bunker, they are shooting back with White Papers.

This latest Civil Service White Paper, published yesterday, is a reply to the recent Treasury and Civil Service Committee (TCSC) report on the role of the Civil Service. Governments often ignore select committee reports. If they are of poor quality they are not worth spending time on, while if they are of high quality then they probably say things which the government does not want to hear. The TCSC report was in fact one of exceptionally high quality, and it does indeed say a number of things which theGovernment did nor want to hear. But the Government has responded to it fully, even if some of the responses seem pretty grudging or negative. This is right because if ever there was an area in which Parliament should have a role it is the Civil Service. For if the Civil Service is a national asset and the current government is just the tenant for the time being, then Parliament must be the freeholder and concerned as such with its ongoing state of repair.

Let us start with management and the delivery of services,for this is what the Civil Service is all about. The Government goes along with what the TCSC says, namely, that the "new public management" (as it is called in such a derogatory way by academics and others who have forgotten how bad the old public management was), is the right way forward. Both the TCSC and the Government endorse the Next Steps approach as the key to the recent transformation in government. They both agree that it is in principle compatible with the maintenance of the traditional values of the service.What the TCSC and the Government say about the values and achievements of the Citizen's Charter is right, and welcome, whatever the chattering classes may believe. And so is the implicit acceptance that market testing, itself uncontentious, has been badly handled in practice.

Next, what about the top dogs? The TCSC's view is good on this, picking up many of the areas where a lot of us felt that the mandarins had got away with it under the first White Paper. Unsurprisingly they seem to have got away with it again. SASC (the cabal of senior civil servants, under Robin Butler, that deals with senior appointments) is to remain in being, and no real answer is given to the TCSC's view that the senior Civil Service remains far too insular. There is to be no new independent Civil Se rvice Commission, though there may be some modest strengthening of the present arrangements, and making the First Commissioner an outside appointment may be valuable, depending on the person.

Finally we come to the difficult area of conduct and ethics. The TCSC recommends a Civil Service Code and the Goverment has, rightly, conceded this. I suspect that, like me, they feel that this is not really necessary save to provide some kind of "comfort" to people. It stops where it ought to stop. Its title does not use that loaded and misleading word "ethics", and it is not (at least not yet) to be made statutory - a daft notion if you are talking about an attempt to apply a single code, no matter how well drafted, over half a million people. The "appeals" machinery to the Civil Service Commissioners must be an improvement on the present situation - for an ordinary civil servant to have to go to Robin Butler is, notwithstanding what the White Paper says, pretty intimidating - but the power that is apparently to be given to the Commissioners to report to Parliament difference of view may be something that ministers will come to regret.

This has been,in its way, a text book story: an excellent select committee report, backed up with considerable marshalling of facts and opinion from all quarters; and the Government taking heed. The Government does not, in my view, take enough heed; indeed, a number of the responses seem to be unnecessarily complacent or perverse. But there will have to be, sooner or later, more progress; for instance, the future holds the outcomes of the Scott and Nolan Inquiries. Also, perhaps less excitingly, there is still much to be done to take the service forward generally. All that said, in its way the latest White Paper builds on last Summer's White Paper, and, no matter how reluctantly, takes another step towards a civil service for the 21st century.

Sir Peter Kemp is former Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office and Next Steps project manager.