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

Share

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

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

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Recruitment Genius: Magento Front End Web Developer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Front End Web Developer is re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore