Ministers 'attack civil servants to deflect blame from Coalition'

Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell says the Government has undermined morale

Oliver Wright
Tuesday 15 January 2013 02:13
Lord O’Donnell has accused ministers of blaming officials for self-inflicted problems
Lord O’Donnell has accused ministers of blaming officials for self-inflicted problems

Ministers are today accused of launching an unfair attack on their most senior civil servants to deflect from the Government's economic woes and deteriorating poll ratings.

In an unprecedented intervention, the recent Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell accuses ministers of undermining civil service morale by blaming officials for self-inflicted difficulties. Lord O'Donnell's comments reflect those of a number of his colleagues still working in Whitehall and who are unable to speak out and come after months of increasingly strained relations between ministers and their senior Whitehall mandarins.

"There is a correlation between attacking the civil service and a Government's standing in the polls," Lord O'Donnell told The Independent. "The fact is that the eurozone crisis has meant the economy has not recovered as fast as everyone would have liked. But that is not the fault of the civil service." Lord O'Donnell also warned of the dangers of rushing through new policies without sufficient thought.

"No one could argue that this Government has been prevented (by the civil service) from pursuing radical policies," he said. "Just look at health, education and welfare. They are not short of radical policies.

"The issue is whether they are the right policies. Have they been formulated with good evidence and if, when they are implemented, will they improve peoples' lives? "What we need to do is spend more time at the front end of policy development. How do we determine what is good policy? Do we need to spend more time doing randomised controls that really examines the evidence? How can we put in place a proper evaluation of that evidence? To me those are the priorities. Reforming the civil service comes quite a way down my list of priorities."

Lord O'Donnell's attack last night elicited a furious response from the Government, which accused him of attempting to "deflect attention" from his own failings as Cabinet Secretary before he retired in 2011.

"Gus bequeathed his successors a civil service with long-standing weaknesses which he failed to address," a senior Government source said. "Now he is struggling to deflect attention from the mess he left and is seeking to blame politicians for having the honesty to say what many senior civil servants have been saying in private – that reform is required."

Lord O'Donnell said ministers were picking on the wrong target – and called on his successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood, to put pressure on Mr Cameron to stop the attacks. "What really annoyed them (civil servants) was being attacked by ministers – because they were not allowed a voice to fight back."

Lord O'Donnell said many of the Government's problems could be solved if it concentrated less on legislation and more on ensuring that existing policies were thought through. His view was backed by the former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education. "I'm concerned that ministers sometimes use their own weaknesses as a cover," Sir David Bell said.

The independent civil service think tank The Institute of Government will today publish a paper warning that divisions between ministers and officials have now become "serious" and are effecting the good running of the government. They are expected to be critical of the civil service in particular for not recognising the need for fundamental reform.

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