Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell compares civil service culture with 'monastic order'

Powell says officials 'lacks the skills for coping with a modern society'

Britain’s civil service is like an insular “monastic order” that thinks the same way and “lacks the skills for coping with a modern society”, according to Tony Blair’s former chief of staff.

In a damming indictment of the officials he worked alongside in Downing Street for 10 years Jonathan Powell said there was a “strong case” for a royal commission to be set up to forge a new system of governance, admitting piecemeal reforms had failed during his decade working with Mr Blair and subsequently.

Specifically he suggested reducing the power of the Treasury – stripping it of its role allocating spending to Whitehall departments.

He said his preferred reforms would include the creation of a powerful new body - similar to the US Office of Management and Budget - to control both the spending and priorities of individual departments.

Giving evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee Mr Powell controversially compared civil service culture with a “monastic order” that led to everyone thinking the same way over a lifetime in the job, calling for more outside expertise to be brought in and more failing civil servants to be removed.

The former diplomat added that the civil service “lacks the skills for coping with a modern society and a modern political system”.

“There is a strong case for a really good look at the civil service again, properly right across the board, thinking about how to change it rather more dramatically,” he said.

“One of the mistakes maybe we made in government was trying to make a series of incremental changes hoping that would make things better.

“Actually I think you need to look at the whole system because what you tend to do is introduce perverse incentives; if you change one bit over here and one bit over there, they tend to work against each other.

“So I do think, with the experience of lots of bitty bits of reform cobbled together, you would be better off with a root and branch look at it through a royal commission.”

Mr Powell said the Number 10 operation should be kept relatively small, arguing it would damage authority to have phone calls made by “some young person who has no idea what the Prime Minister thinks”.

He said there was a case for more political appointments to the upper echelons of the civil service but not on the scale seen in Washington, Paris or Berlin, and that senior ministers should have more of a say in the appointment of permanent secretaries.

But the man who was among Mr Blair's closest advisers throughout his time in office indicated that his main priority would be to reduce the power of the Treasury.

“I would have something more like the OMB in the American system or the departments in many European governments, where you bring together setting priorities for spending along with setting priorities for personnel,” he said.

“So you would have the Cabinet Office and the spending bit of the Treasury together as one powerful department at the centre with a cabinet minister in charge of it and that would actually align your incentives for government. You would have the money and the instructions flowing in the same direction.”

The Government is currently trying to push through a civil service reform plan but has made clear it will go further if it feels that its proposals so far are being frustrated.

A Government source said: “The civil service needs substantial reform to make it fit for purpose in the modern world. This is in part to compensate for a long period where management was lacking and essential skills were eroded.

“If the Government's modest reform plan cannot be effectively implemented, the case for more significant changes will become ever harder to resist.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all