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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Wages are on the rise (so long as you skew the figures)

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

It’s two decades since ‘education, education, education’, but still Britain’s primary school admissions are a farce

Jane Merrick
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal