Permanent Secretaries & the Civil Service Reform

8 October 2020

If you can look beyond the maelstrom of coronavirus, and if you can peer through the smoke and see past the mirrors of Brexit, there is another deep current of change in British politics that shouldn’t escape our attention. It too, has significant and long-term implications for how the country is governed.

Read more about Civil Service reform from DRD Partner, Duncan Fulton down below.

Permanent* Secretaries [*sic]

It goes without saying that Covid and Brexit have been the defining issues of the last year in British politics. But if you can look beyond the maelstrom of coronavirus, and if you can peer through the smoke and see past the mirrors of Brexit, there is another deep current of change that shouldn’t escape our attention. It too, has significant and long-term implications for how the country is governed.

The first is Civil Service reform. Every government either promises it or threatens it, depending on your standpoint. Few deliver it.

The Cameron era cuts to civil service numbers have since been reversed and the public sector headcount (even pre-Covid) was back to very close to pre ‘austerity’ levels. But numbers themselves do not tell the whole story.

Hard rain

The Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings has warned a “hard rain is coming” for the Civil Service, and has called for “misfits with odd skills” to replace “the Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties”.

Michael Gove, rather more prosaically, has called for an end to the “cosy… inescapably metropolitan … consensus” that has resulted “every arm of government being seemed estranged from the majority”.

Both have called for better data, more policy coordination, the dispersal of civil service functions across the country and the ability to implement decisions in real time.

Do we like experts again?

So what does it all mean and why does it matter? Cummings is unlikely to achieve his stated ambition to kill off the permanent civil service and replace it with political appointees and external Subject Matter Experts, but, if the departure of six Permanent Secretaries in the past six months is any indication, change is already afoot.

Power is shifting away from departments, back to the centre. This isn’t in itself new. In the early New Labour years Tony Blair, Alasdair Campbell and Jonathan Powell ran a very tight ship from No10. But by and large they had the support of a civil service eager for a fresh approach.

Beam me up

Newly installed at 70 Whitehall surrounded by an expanded central Policy Unit, Cummings will hope his new data-driven command centre (dubbed the “Starship Enterprise”), will allow him to by-pass departmental policy makers, the vested interests and the blockers, as is his view of many in the Civil Service.

A cautionary tale of the false promise of new technology, though, comes from the Home Office. After the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, John Reid insisted that a shiny new Operations Room be built in the Home Office so he could oversee counter-terrorism ops in real-time. It only took about five years for anyone to connect the room to the outside world.

One of the practical implications, or rather a stated ambition, of these reforms is to overcome the institutional inertia that has stifled (critics argue) the creativity in public policy making that will be needed as the UK enters into a newly independent phase of its history.

Positions that once appeared fix may now be moving.

Established wisdom is being challenged in a number of sectors from planning, to procurement.

And we have seen the government prepared to listen to a wider range of voices than the “lobbyists and thinktanks” that Gove and Cummings feel are the architects of the current group-think.

A swanky control room will achieve nothing in itself. But if it does signify a move to more open, responsive and plural policy making with clearer lines of accountability between what government says and what it does, then the gains may be worth the Civil Service pains.

If, however, far from opening up policy making to a wider range of views, the Cummings reforms concentrate power into an even tighter clique, they may prove only as long-lived as this government.

PHOTO: Credit to Mark Harrison/Britbox/Avalon