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It’s time for the Civil Service to start looking outwards

And a boss with business experience won’t hurt
  • @IndyVoices

In a stratagem straight out of the Yes, Minister playbook, the Government sneaked out the sacking of Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the Civil Service, under cover of the most far-reaching reshuffle of David Cameron’s time at Number 10. The resignation, as it was of course termed, will not take effect for two months, but this one-man reshuffle trumps all the high-profile Cabinet changes in its significance.

With Sir Bob’s departure goes a two-year experiment in shared leadership of the Civil Service (Sir Bob was called head of the Civil Service, while Sir Jeremy Heywood was Cabinet Secretary). The two jobs will be put back together again, with Sir Jeremy assuming his former co-leader’s responsibilities. And hooray for that. In any organisation, it’s always helpful to know where the buck stops. 

More to the point, however – far, far more to the point – was the announcement that a new top Civil Service post of chief executive is to be advertised, with private-sector experience featuring prominently in the job description. This does not rule out the appointment of a civil servant, but it does suggest a recognition that a bit more budgetary and managerial professionalism might not go amiss in an area where amateurism – albeit well-meaning and largely honest amateurism – has ruled.

In creating such a post, the Government is borrowing in part from Germany, but also from New Zealand (fount of many much-studied government reforms). Both countries are regarded as having notably efficient public administrations, not just in terms of running smoothly, but in terms of keeping tabs on the public purse-strings. You can understand why a Government, frustrated by seemingly endless IT cock-ups, poorly drafted contracts for say, tagging or transporting prisoners, and a health service where each trust buys in its own supplies at vastly different prices, might find commercial experience attractive. You can also understand why some parts of the Civil Service might not.

What sort of reception the new chief executive can expect can be gleaned from a blog written by Sir Bob Kerslake when he saw the writing on his own office wall. He said the Prime Minister “had decided to create a new full-time chief executive post to lead on efficiency and reform”. He insisted that the Civil Service had “delivered brilliantly on a massive programme of change for the government” through four “challenging” years. And he described as ”less brilliant” “the ‘noises off’, accusing civil servants of being reluctant to change”. There was more in the same vein.

Ministers’ unhappiness with Sir Bob’s performance was well known, as was the whispering campaign against him. But you might well ask since when famously self-effacing and politically neutral civil servants, still less top civil servants, were allowed (encouraged?) to blog. Some modernity, it seems, is embraced, and some not. 

It so happens – and far be it from me to hazard any connection – that Iain Rennie, New Zealand’s State Services Commissioner and head of his country’s Civil Service, appeared recently at the Institution of Government, a relatively young London think-tank whose name explains itself. He was “in conversation” with Mark Lowcock, the most senior civil servant at the Department for International Development, who also chairs something called the accountability implementation board for civil service reform. The difference – in language and substance – was astonishing. Where Rennie looked outwards and referred deferentially to the taxpayer, Lowcock never once mentioned a world beyond Whitehall. 

This was one of a number of IfG seminars about the Civil Service designed to bridge the gulf of understanding between those inside and out. For those of us on the outside, however, the effect, was mostly  the reverse.

Senior Whitehall civil servants came across as preoccupied with process, their own structures and their own progression. There was much talk of performance assessments and “delivery”, but what they thought they were “delivering”, for whose benefit, and at what cost was unclear – except in a self-perpetuating way.

This fact of Civil Service life seemed only to be underlined last month when the BBC reported a leaked memo, composed by civil servants for civil servants, reminding them that their job was not only to “deliver others’ agendas” , but to pursue the “long-term aims of their department”.  The inescapable inference was that departmental interests were at least equal, if not superior, to the wishes of the elected government.

This document caused a mini-flutter in media dovecotes – and presumably in government – but not beyond. It would be worth knowing who penned it. If this is what the Civil Service thinks it is about, perhaps the next government should sack the lot and start again.

Apropos of Sir Bob, part of me also wishes that a condition of accepting a knighthood (outside the world of celebs and showbiz) should be using the formal version of your name. Would Sir Bob Kerslake have run into such trouble, I wonder, if he had called himself Sir Robert? And if Sir Jeremy Heywood had styled himself Sir Jez, maybe it would have been his head that would have rolled.

New faces in the Cabinet doesn’t mean new policies

Judging by the pre-spin and the pictures, you would have thought that David Cameron’s biggest Cabinet reshuffle since he became Prime Minister was all about increasing female representation in government, so that the Conservative line-up did not look too “male” when set against the Labour line-up, come next May. And perhaps there was a condescending hint of the Blair “babes” about the appointments.

At least as significant as the arrivals, though, I suspect, were the departures – calculated to remove obvious targets for Labour, on the one hand, and for Ukip, on the other. Without Michael Gove at the Education department, a whole swathe of Labour (and bolshie teachers’) invective has been neutralised. Nicky Morgan may pursue the self-same policies in every detail, but she will not come across as abrasive or driven as Gove.

The departures of the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague – both too soft on Europe – signal similar pre-election intentions. Whether their successors will actually change anything before next May is not the point; it is the appearance that counts.