Death rattle of the mandarins?

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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits