Death rattle of the mandarins?

Reform is coming to the Civil Service, but some worry it will harm more than help

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The British engage in major constitutional change as if “under anaesthetic”, said Sir Richard Wilson, when he was Cabinet Secretary in 2000, as New Labour brought in devolution, House of Lords reform and the Human Rights act. He was thinking, too, of an earlier upheaval, the 1973 European accession.

Acting in haste and fearing the future has exercised the minds of many a senior civil servant, retired and in post, since the stories surfaced a week ago that the Cabinet had accepted proposals from Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, that permanent secretaries would no longer be permanent but subject to five-year renewable contracts and extended ministerial offices (or EMOs) which would see up to 15 people appointed personally by each minister. This was exacerbated by overzealous ministerial briefing last week that the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, was about to lose his job which backfired after it transpired that it was ahead of the Prime Minister's thinking.

"Politicising" and thereby weakening the traditional impartiality of the Civil Service is the charge levelled at Maude from those who note that the uniquely uncodified British constitution has few checks and balances. All recognise that New Labour and the Coalition both became frustrated by their experience of the Civil Service and that reform is inevitable.

But there is great dismay from the more mature generation that this frustration is spilling over into a knee-jerk reaction which will undo for ever the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement, which lasted for longer than a century and a half. Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, is just one of a growing number who believe that the time is right for a major investigation into the practices of the Civil Service, perhaps even a Royal Commission, on the model of 1968's Fulton Report. 

A long drawn-out investigation, perhaps chaired by a retired Cabinet Secretary and including constitutional experts with little or no hands-on experience, is just what reformers wish to avoid, sensing yet more obfuscation and playing for time. They point to a Civil Service track record with little to be proud of, explaining that current permanent secretary tenures are on average shorter than five years and that politicisation is a misnomer because the EMOs will be populated by officials more than special advisers.

A most telling point, here, is that the reformers are not just those on the armed wing of the Tory party, nor just those in the restless delivery side of the Labour Party such as Andrew Adonis - but also Civil Service high-flyers just below permanent secretary level. These are officials who are desperate for a faster, fitter Service, one that is not continually fighting the last war but speedily responsive to changing needs, and one that is more loyal to the political programme of the government which is, after all, the purpose of the Civil Service. The reform-minded civil servants are also frustrated that the public debate has retired senior officials talking for them - there is not simply one settled small 'c' conservative Civil Service view and there is support within the Service for Maude's plans. 

"Continuity and change" has long been the mantra of the British Civil Service. Change is unavoidably on the way. The question is to what extent there will be continuity. The answer to this will test the view of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's Chief of Staff, that the difficulties his master encountered in his dealings with the Civil Service were "the death rattle of the old mandarin class".

Dr Jon Davis is a lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London, and director of the Mile End Group

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