Andrew Grice: The Civil Service is back – and the Coalition doesn't like it

Benchmarks and milestones are in, but they look like slimmed-down targets by another name
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The Independent Online

Sir Humphrey is back in the driving seat and has a smile on his face. The formation of the Coalition six months ago was good news for senior civil servants, who felt marginalised by New Labour's "sofa government". Although some big decisions are taken by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, Whitehall is needed to oil the wheels of a machine made from two different parties.

In public, ministers proclaim they have restored "cabinet government". In private, some fret that the civil servants' smiles reveal that they have used the advent of the Coalition to grab back the levers of power.

The blueprint unveiled yesterday for monthly online progress reports on whether government departments are achieving their objectives is also aimed at making sure the Civil Service delivers too. Some cabinet members fear that Whitehall should be more flexible in the way it operates in a Coalition. When Mr Clegg asked his officials to call a meeting of all Liberal Democrat ministers recently, they refused, saying it would be a party-political act. He then asked for a session with the same group of 18 named ministers and officials agreed.

Similarly, some civil servants have been slow to acknowledge that Liberal Democrat ministers need to represent their party's interests across their whole department rather than merely in their own narrow brief.

Ministers may ask Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, to rewrite the civil service rulebook to make it more accommodating to coalition government. Naturally, the Liberal Democrats hope that this Coalition will not be a one-off but the first of many.

For all the Coalition's talk of a Whitehall revolution, yesterday's launch had a familiar ring. Labour's targets are out, benchmarks and milestones are in, but they look like slimmed-down targets by another name. What is new is publishing such regular updates online, a welcome move designed to allow the public to hold departments to account and force them to drive up standards.

Downing Street will also be on departments' tails, as it was under Labour, so some things won't change. Indeed, the recent grumbling by ministers echoes Tony Blair's complaint about having "scars on my back", which was aimed at the Civil Service rather than public-sector unions. In his memoirs, the former prime minister said the problem was not politically motivated civil servants but "inertia". He recalled: "They tended to surrender, whether to vested interests, to the status quo or the safest way to manage things – which all meant: to do nothing."

Another problem for today's ministers is that they are asking civil servants to implement big reforms on health, education and welfare at a time of deep spending cuts – which happen to include the loss of 600,000 public-sector jobs over the next five years. Tricky.