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

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little