Whitehall's quiet revolution

Scott reveals a 'can-do' culture sweeping the Civil Service. But more must change, says Peter Kemp
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The Independent Online
Those who know do not talk, and those who talk do not know. This is the general rule in any attempt to look at the Civil Service. But, just occasionally, a shaft of light beams into the machine. It may be limited and selective. But it does help to illuminate and educate.

This is what Scott provides. Arguments about the handling of the inquiry and the publication of the report, and about whether or not some ministers should walk the plank, are certainly important. So is the question of whether disciplinary action might be taken against individual civil servants. But in the longer run, one of the most important issues is what Scott means for the future of the machinery of government and the relationship between ministers and the most senior civil servants.

This has not been discussed greatly as yet, and for obvious reasons; politically, for Labour to attack the Civil Service takes the heat off those ministers in government, while the Tories can hardly go around blaming the people they are supposed to control - at least, not too loudly.

The report is a good read. It is worth studying by people who want to know about the senior Civil Service. It provides some gem-like insights into the way the tribe communicates ("Dear Terry ... Yours ever, Robin"), how it bargains ("If Mr Waldegrave does concede, I hope he will extract as his price ... "), its euphemisms ("our friends") and its "purely drafting changes" which substantially alter the meaning of words.

But above all we get the atmosphere of getting things done. For instance, we read of Customs' frustration at not being allowed to pursue a prosecution it wanted, and of the Department of Trade and Industry's "dislike but resigned acceptance" of new guidelines that would go against its industrial policies. Scott applies a judicial dispassion in his report, but many people now reading it with all the benefit of hindsight and the courage of the non-combatant are ferocious in their criticism of this atmosphere. They overlook what it achieved. It had its failures but, on the whole, it worked well and it was what we needed. It was certainly not dishonourable.

It was a heady time, the Eighties, not least in Whitehall. There was this new government, elected with a substantial majority and on a ticket which showed it knew what it wanted and how to get to it. It knew that government meant government, and that there are in fact very few unsurmountable obstacles if the will is there.

It worked, and civil servants went along with it. This was a legitimate government with a mandate and there was nothing wrong in going right down to the wire on what the rules permitted; at the end of the day, the ministers were in charge. "If the ministers so decide, you go along with it or you resign," as one very senior and totally liberal-minded Treasury official once said. But the situation did not arise; vegetarians do not stay long in steak restaurants.

What had happened was that the weighting shifted between two of the Civil Service's main roles. The first is what many people still see as the traditional role: the "ballast" of society. These are the "wait-a- minute" men, who are there to whisper warnings into the ears of ministers. But there is another role, which is "can-do"; the role of people who are there to do the lawful bidding of elected ministers. Both can-do man and wait-a-minute man are appointed on merit and non-politicised, but they are very different animals.

What Scott illuminates, albeit indirectly and without comment, is the shift from wait-a-minute to can-do. And can-do man is here to stay. Neither of the two leading parties wants to put the clock back again, even if they could. John Major will not - indeed, has not - sought to do so. He is a signed-up heir to the Margaret Thatcher inheritance and is riding out Scott. Tony Blair will not because, if he is elected, it will be to do things himself. It will not be so that he can hand back power to permanent non-elected people, especially since he or some of his people will certainly suspect the advice they are given. The genie of real ministerial control is out of the bottle.

But the downsides must be addressed. Mr Major is said to be already looking at some of the Scott recommendations, including questions of improved rules of conduct, rules for answering questions in Parliament and more openness. Well and good as far as they go, but I believe they are wholly inadequate on their own.

More far-reaching changes are needed all round. We need better ministers, better informed and more determined; better supported by non-Civil Service sources, and certainly readier to depart if things go wrong.

We need more movings or, indeed, sackings of civil servants who do not deliver; people who are more competent at their job; more outsiders; and people with a greater readiness to take responsibility when things go wrong.

We need better arrangements, settled case by case in advance, to minimise if not eliminate disputes about allocation of blame when things gowrong.

We need a hard examination of the machinery of Whitehall. The sin of departmentalism undoubtedly played a part in the Scott events and we need to structure departments better; there is also a need to create cross- departmental agencies and the like to make sure that subjects are treated effectively. And with all of this we need a strengthened Prime Minister's department and a splitting of the role of Cabinet Secretary and the head of the Civil Service.

We need better audit; stronger Select Committees of Parliament monitoring the executive, and more effective and up-to-date support from independent and professional bodies such as the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission so that this monitoring is based on hard knowledge of all the facts.

The delivery of the public services is now much better; agencies, purchaser/provider split, letting the private sector operate where it can do it best, and emphasis on citizens and their needs. But the policy and advice end is still to be updated, and Scott provides the opportunity. The doing approach is irreversible and has to be right, but the checks and disciplines need to catch up. This is the right and inevitable way forward, whatever the nostalgia buffs may say.

The writer spent a long career in the Treasury, before retiring in 1992 as Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office.