Let’s see the top civil servants on television

Jeremy Heywood is now with his third successive PM. He and other officials should be held to account


Suddenly, a hint of light shines on the civil service, yet another revered public institution that has functioned largely in the dark.

The source of light has been the admittedly simplistic words of David Cameron’s former senior adviser, Steve Hilton, whose disparaging observations about civil servants to his new American students are now conveniently public.

But Hilton is by no means alone. Other ministers embark on ambitious and necessary reforms of the civil service, unable to disguise their despair. Even Cameron once made a speech on the need for sweeping change, but ironically was told to keep quiet on the issue by his then most senior official, Gus O’Donnell.

Lower down the current political hierarchy, politically appointed special advisers speak out in private, frustrated by their relatively marginal role in policy-making compared with the inert Whitehall machine. Soon after the election, the frustration was tangible within No 10, a centre of power where Jeremy Heywood , O’Donnell’s seemingly eternal successor, holds considerable sway.

A similar tension applied under the last Labour government. Special advisers sometimes attended meetings in Downing Street on Labour’s famous “grid” for the following week and listened with disbelief at the naivety of Heywood’s assessment of how events were likely to unfold. There was also a similar range of damning public quotes under the previous government, including most famously John Reid’s assertion that the Home Office was “not fit for purpose”.

Privately, the special advisers to both governments were sometimes even more scathing. Frustration is peculiarly intense in the current government because Cameron has given the civil service machine more formal power over policy-making in No 10 than New Labour, which sought, from the beginning, to assert its highly developed political will.

Some senior advisers currently in Whitehall are now delighted that the role of the civil service has moved into intense media focus. Indeed a few have played a part in ensuring that the media gaze has turned in this particular direction.

Labour’s advisers in government were equally contemptuous, suggesting to me that there was a poor work ethic in the civil service – one claimed that it was hard to get hold of some officials on a Friday – and despairing of the wasteful need to appoint consultants from outside, at great expense, to run government projects because the civil service machine could not be trusted to do so.

There are important qualifications to this all- party onslaught.  Some current ministers and parts of the media detect a deliberate statist conspiracy from the civil service to block anti-state reforms. This is nonsense, similar to the laughable allegation that the BBC is left wing. Apart from a mountain of other factors, neither the civil service nor the BBC is managed well enough to organise an effective conspiracy on behalf of the left or the right.

More important, most officials I have met are there to serve, at least in theory. That is partly why they choose to work in the civil service, and have an interest in policy-making and  public service beyond attachment to party. It is also the case that the current Government of the radical right is pursuing sweeping change on many fronts, inevitably testing the system, as Cameron acknowledged in a BBC interview yesterday. To some extent, the opposite applied under New Labour, with too many cabinet ministers awaiting their instructions from either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, wary of acting, constantly reviewing, and then blaming the civil service that more was not being done. Unavoidably, governing is also more complicated than Steve Hilton would like to believe. Under a perfect civil service, he would still discover that not every moment of each day could be devoted to his treasured reforms alone, not least in a coalition in the midst of an economic crisis.

In Hilton’s case, the civil servant’s grip was greater because of what another senior Tory adviser, and Hilton admirer, described to me as the great irony they had discovered too belatedly. To give away power – the essence of Hilton’s project – it was necessary to have a very strong, highly political centre. Almost for ideological reasons, Cameron chose not to have one.

One solution to the current tensions is for Cameron to allow the appointment of many more special advisers. Political journalists tend to want to speak to special advisers to discover what is happening. Yet huge press offices are still staffed by civil servants in each department. More widely, when policy-making involves an important political dimension it seems wildly disproportionate for ministers to rely on two or three overworked special advisers while hundreds of civil servants are caught in a sclerotic bureaucracy. At the same time, senior officials, most of whom are in departments for much longer than fleeting ministers, must be held more fully to account, including on TV and radio. Jeremy Heywood is now with his third successive Prime Minister, a durability at the heart of government that is a form of mighty power in itself. Yet few voters know who he is. We should get to know the top officials. However erratically shone, it is very good news that light is being cast on Whitehall and other institutions that got too used to darkness.

s.richards@independent.co.uk Twitter: @steverichards14

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own