Steve Richards: Start reform with the Civil Service

Normally any minister who ends up in the Cabinet Office pulls levers and discovers that nothing happens, however close they are to the Prime Minister

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The coalition's leading figures left their press conference yesterday with applause ringing in their ears. The clapping was the final moment of another mind blowing, hallucinatory event. David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, Theresa May and Vince Cable nodding in agreement as one spoke politely after the other. Were the journalists applauding at the end? I would not have been surprised, not because they are instinctively supine, but because nothing surprises me any more.

The members of the audience expressing their approval turned out to be senior civil servants. Such a demonstrative display is not especially unusual. Civil servants do a lot of clapping when a new government replaces a long serving one. They put their hands together for Blair and Brown in 1997. Now they do so for the "Liberal Democrat-Conservative government", as Cameron describes the coalition with a revealing generosity. Paul McCartney still fumes that many of his compositions are attributed to "Lennon/McCartney" and once attempted to reverse the order to "McCartney/Lennon". Voluntarily Cameron places the Liberal in front of the Conservative.

Before yesterday's applause the leader of the civil servants' union, Jonathan Baume, also offered the equivalent of a helpful pat on the back, revealing that in the final days of the Labour government senior officials had deployed the "nuclear" option. They had refused to sign off ministerial spending initiatives. Apparently Permanent Secretaries were alarmed that ministers were wasting money or spending purely to help Labour's cause in marginal seats.

Parts of the media erupted with moral indignation at Baume's revelation, seeming to accept without question that the verdict of non-elected officials is more significant than that of ministers who were held to account every hour by the media and ultimately by the electorate, so much so that those ministers who made the spending decisions are no longer in power while the assertive civil servants are still in post, anonymous, well paid and secure.

Evidently the virtually unknown officials are pleased to be working with a new administration after the ghostly desperation of the previous one and that feeling is to some extent reciprocated. With good cause David Cameron has praised the way senior civil servants were ready to advise on the formation of a coalition having fully assimilated the lack of readiness in February 1974, the last time voters returned a hung parliament.

The new Government and Whitehall dance together in these early heady days, the one delighted to be in power, the other thrilled to see the back of the last lot. On the whole it can only be healthy that mutual back-slapping is the order of the day. And yet there are also very big dangers in such a healthy relationship. They might get to like each other too much when in truth one side needs to turn on the other. To be more precise the Government needs as a matter of urgency to reform the way Whitehall works, shake it up, re-cast roles, make it more efficient and less complacent.

The coalition agreement published yesterday is a remarkable document. There are obviously very big holes. As the The Independent pointed out yesterday quite a lot of the thorny issues, from Lords' reform to care for the elderly, are subject to review. This is either because there is "no money", as the departing Chief Secretary to the Treasury put it in his farewell note, or because the two sides cannot agree.

I am reminded of an observation made by a Labour cabinet minister in the summer of 1997 when apparent hyperactivity disguised lack of direction and purpose. "We have hit the ground reviewing," he noted. Most of the reviews then ran into the ground, usually the fate of such exercises and often the objective in setting them up. For the coalition the long grass will prove to be impenetrably long in relation to some policies. If agreement cannot be reached in this honeymoon period there will be no consensus in a few years' time.

But there is also a great deal of substance in the document. Believe it or not there is agreement in the Agreement and some of it is ambitious. Quite a lot would have had Labour MPs cheering if their government had dared to venture down a few of the pathways. Nick Clegg never knowingly understates a case, but some of the proposed constitutional changes are significant even if they are not revolutionary. Labour's child poverty targets are still in place, although the means by which they will be achieved are not clear as they never were. I could go on for another 30 or so pages. Next week the Government outlines its Queen's Speech. This was a Queen's Speech Plus.

In the end the Government will be judged overwhelmingly by its economic policies and the way Clegg and David Laws, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have departed from the party's previous position about the dangers of cuts this year stretches the boundaries of so called "new politics". Even so this is a serious programme put together with impressive, breathtaking speed.

Who knows how it will all look when the innocent sounding Comprehensive Spending Review is held in the autumn, but for now there is a more immediate concern. A lot of the Government's most innovative ideas will be shaped in the Cabinet Office. Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude are based there, seeking to deliver the too easily mocked big society. Clegg is also in the Cabinet Office putting together what he calls his big bang constitutional revolution.

What are they all doing in the Cabinet Office? Normally any minister who ends up in the department pulls levers and discovers that nothing happens, however close they are to the Prime Minister, politically and geographically. Peter Mandelson started his ministerial career in the Cabinet Office, often appearing in a paranoia- inducing corridor as if from nowhere. Ed Miliband had his first cabinet job there. Mandelson was close to Blair and Miliband to Brown. They do not claim to have changed Britain as a result of their spells of service in that department. Nor is it seen as a place for ambitious civil servants. If the coalition is to succeed it should get the best of them in that department, driving the policies from origin to delivery at a local level.

Such a move is one of many necessary changes. One of those who moved into No 10 last week tells me that the computer system is antiquated. I heard the same when New Labour advisers arrived in the late 1990s. Evidently nothing was done about it. During Labour's era several independent reviews argued that senior officials should be more publicly accountable for their departments' performance, including appearances on the Today programme. That should concentrate complacent minds. An end to the duplication and triplication of responsibilities might help too.

Sadly a government only has the authority to reform the Civil Service at the beginning of its life, the moment when it is especially dependent on officials' expertise and goodwill. The applause at the end of yesterday's press conference will make it harder for Cameron to act, but if he fails to do so he will struggle to lead a genuinely reforming government.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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