Government looks to France to get civil servants to fulfil policy

Blue notes are issued when a minister makes a decision, with a timescale for its execution
  • @oliver_wright

It is, for a Conservative government at least, an unlikely place to find inspiration.

But senior Tories have turned across the Channel to France in hope of answering the age old Yes Minister conundrum: how do you get your civil servants to do the things thing you want?

Significant numbers of ministers have become infuriated that decisions which they thought they had made and were being implemented by the Civil Service had in fact been quietly “parked” by their officials.

On four or five occasions it has taken the personal intervention of the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Robert Kerslake, the head of the Civil Service, to resurrect the policies from the long grass. But now, following a fact-finding visit to Paris by the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, the Government thinks it has hit on a solution to the problem.

During the trip Mr Maude met with the head of the French Grand Corps de l’État – its equivalent of the civil service – and was shown an example of a papier bleu or “blue note”.

In France papier bleus are issued – on blue paper – when a minister or group of ministers make a decision.

They detail the policy that has been decided, what implementation it requires, who is responsible for making it happen and within what timescale. The notes are the circulated to relevant civil servants and departments and can be referred back to by ministers and used to chase up policies and hold the government machine to account.

Mr Maude was impressed. On his return to the UK he set about implementing a version of blue notes in Whitehall and the first have now started being circulated among officials.

They are currently being rolled out to record decisions made by some cabinet committees – the engine room of Government policy-making – and if successful they could be extended to decision-making in individual departments. A senior Government source said: “In the past it has frankly been too easy for ministers to think they had made a decision that was being acted upon only to ask a few months later and find nothing had happened.

“What blue notes will do is make clear what decisions have been made what we expect officials to do. There will be a record we can go back to and say, ‘That’s what you were meant to do – why hasn’t it happened?”

A Whitehall source told The Independent that Mr Maude’s plan had the backing of senior civil servants who were “open” to any idea that could improve the process of government. However they expressed some scepticism that blue papers would be better than the traditional system of minuted meetings. “As it stands all cabinet committee meeting should have minutes which include the actions that need to be taken by departments,” they said.