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

And a boss with business experience won’t hurt


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.

Read more: Inside Whitehall: How the sacking of the head of the Civil Service almost cost a minister his job

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.

Why we should allow assisted dying
Marvel comics have maed Thor a woman, thank Odin
As a child growing up in Israel, I saw how Palestinians became dehumanised

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executive - PR and Broadcast - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has an exciting op...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor - Shifts

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This European market leader for security...

Recruitment Genius: Freelance AutoCAD Technician

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Freelance AutoCAD Technician is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Order Processor

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This European market leader for security...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd champion the young and hold a cabinet meeting on top of Ben Nevis

Bear Grylls

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot