Time for Sir Humphrey to give some ground

Francis Maude's brief to improve the effectiveness of the civil service includes the task of stymying the tendency to obfuscate, delay, and simply wait politicians out

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The gloves are coming off in the most passive-aggressive of power struggles – that between frustrated ministers and their civil servants. In part, David Cameron’s efforts to oust Sir Bob Kerslake reflect a structural oversight of his own making. By giving the newly created post of Head of the Home Civil Service to a candidate who was to remain the top official at a large department, the Prime Minister merely carved up one impossibly broad job (that of the Cabinet Secretary) and created another.

That there are only 24 hours in the day, even for the mightiest of mandarins, is not the sole reason for Mr Cameron’s manoeuvrings, however. The other is Sir Bob’s apparent reluctance to push through sweeping reforms being put together by Francis Maude. Indeed, the Cabinet Office minister’s brief to improve the effectiveness of the civil service machine includes, to no small extent, the task of stymying the Sir Humphrey tendency to obfuscate, delay, and simply wait politicians out when it comes to policies that Whitehall does not like.

For those steeped in Whitehall lore, Mr Maude’s proposals are certainly radical ones. Plans set out this week include a five-year fixed term for permanent secretaries (with an option to renew, depending on performance) and a more centralised approach to procurement and finance. Most controversial of all, however, is the call for a larger cadre of political appointees. If Sir Bob looks askance at such changes, he will not be the only one.

Few dispute that the world has changed and Whitehall’s supposed Rolls-Royce service has not kept up. A department of state charged with distributing benefits to tens of millions of people, say, or running 21st-century immigration controls, still needs the first-class brains and top-notch policy advice of old. But it also needs the delivery skills, financial acumen and management know-how of a FTSE 100 chief executive.

Not only are such abilities not as prevalent as they need to be; incompetence too often goes unnoticed or even ends in promotion. From the West Coast Main Line debacle, to Lin Homer’s rise from the basketcase Border Agency to head HM Revenue & Customs, to the latest allegations that G4S overcharged for criminal tagging, the evidence just keeps on coming.

Upping the number of political appointees will not solve everything. For that, civil service accountabilities and incentives need to be re-thought. A greater honesty about why problems arise – not the least of which is a lack of ministerial clarity – is also needed. But what larger hand-picked ministerial teams will do is add to the mix of available talent, militate against the tendency to inertia, and improve Whitehall’s responsiveness to the democratically mandated intentions of its political masters.

This is no call for revolution. The case for a permanent Civil Service remains as forceful as ever. Institutional memory and clear-sighted policy evaluation, untainted by politics, remain invaluable. So much so that the weight given to such advice must be formally codified in any new, more flexible structures. After all, one need look no further than the poll tax to see what happens if politicians listen only to those of their own cast of mind.

At the moment, though, the balance of power is tilted too far the other way, leaving ministers pulling on levers with little result. Mr Maude’s plans for more political appointees, specifically charged with putting policy into practice, are to be welcomed, then. But they are no panacea. Whitehall needs to be reformed, not merely circumvented. And, even without Sir Bob, the Prime Minister will have a fight on his hands.

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