Nick Herbert is the MP for Arundel and a former Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice.
It happened in 1997, and again in 2010. A new government is elected after a long period out of power. Most of its ministers have never experienced office. It says, probably believes, that most of the problems facing the country are the making of the party that it just kicked out. There’s nothing too wrong with the machinery of government, it thinks, just those that were in charge of it; there’s nothing that a new regime can’t fix.
And then, after a time, the scales begin to drop from the new ministers’ eyes. They discover big problems in cost control and procurement (Defence). They face internal cultural opposition (Schools). They face commissioning disasters (Transport – West Coast Mainline) and operational nightmares (Home Office – Borders Agency; Work & Pensions – Universal Credit). They get the blame, just as in opposition they blamed ministers. And they begin to realise that the problems might not just be political. Many are about the system.
Tony Blair and some of his more reform-minded ministers went through this, and became ever more interested in improving the system. So, too, have a number of our ministers. It’s no surprise that it’s those in charge of our bolder reforms, some of our most impressive performers, who have become most supportive of change. At the centre, in the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude has been driving largely unsung reforms to reduce cost and headcount, sharpen accountability, and drag government services into the digital era.
The favourite media narrative is that there are ‘Whitehall Wars’ as ministers blame civil servants and vice versa. It’s true that a group of former Cabinet Secretaries – I will leave ConHome readers to invent the collective noun – have decided that they don’t like the current reforms. Most served in a different era, although their skills have not deserted them. Last year I found myself debating civil service reform with the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, who after attacking a minister for briefing against civil servants admitted that he was the source of a broadsheet story criticising a minister.
This disheartening blame game misses the big points. First, the current leaders of the civil service want reform, too. They co-sponsored the Government’s civil service reform plan. They want to protect the civil service’s impartiality and values. But the best and brightest in Whitehall see the need for improvement, just as any good executives in an organisation relentlessly focus on how it can do better. To identify systemic weaknesses is not to attack civil servants.
Second, the issues are as much about politicians as they are the civil service. The capacity of ministers, the role of advisers, the adequacy of Parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive and the trammel of short-termism all need to be tackled, too.
Third, we must look ahead to the challenges that will face any government in the next Parliament. Our country faces immense fiscal pressures, a rising demand for services, growing public expectations, and the need to improve international competitiveness. With inevitable spending cuts, tomorrow’s government will need to be leaner, smarter at commissioning, better able to organise itself to meet societal challenges, and more responsive to citizens. Even if our system were good now, we would need to improve it.
But it isn’t. One administration after another has encountered problems delivering major projects. Financial control in Whitehall is poor, and accountabilities are confused. This matters, of course, because huge sums of money are wasted. But the consequences of sub-optimal government go beyond the financial costs. The weakest pay the highest price from a failure to tackle entrenched social and economic problems. And when public confidence in the ability of government to deliver is persistently undermined, faith in politics is eroded.
Today, as the House of Commons debates civil service reform, the Labour MP and former Minister John Healey and I are launching a new, cross-party project, GovernUp. You can read John Healey’s article about it on LabourList here. Backed by senior politicians of all parties, former civil servants, Whitehall advisers and business leaders, its mission is to analyse the problems, challenge the terms of debate, and consider the far-reaching reforms needed in Whitehall and beyond to enable more effective and efficient government.
We want to learn from international evidence of best practice. Many more of New Zealand’s ministers cross-cut departments and issues. Australia and Canada support their ministers with far more expert advisers. Singapore’s civil service is strategic, highly skilled and competitively remunerated, attracting top talent. Cities with more autonomy innovate and find it easier to tackle complex social problems where multiple agents need to work together.
As the former Permanent Secretary Lord Bichard – a member of GovernUp’s Advisory Board – has said today:
“The civil service is in need of significant reform if it is to address effectively the challenges posed by ministers, government and a rapidly changing environment. It needs to develop new skills … become more innovative … less risk averse … work better in partnership with the private sector and civil society … respond with greater urgency to the political leadership whilst retaining the power to speak truth unto power. Too often the debate about reform has been dominated by a determination to protect the traditional values of the service and many of these need to be protected. But the debate needs to shift to what must change, not just what must be retained.”
This isn’t 1997 or 2010. For the first time since the Second World War, all three major parties have current or recent experience of government. All are anticipating a competitive general election. There is now an opportunity to find common ground on the changes needed to secure better government in Britain.
Our system of public administration, designed in the 19th Century, is no longer equal to the challenges facing our country. In its current form, Whitehall sets a Prime Minister and his ministers at an immediate disadvantage. As we look forward to a majority Conservative government with bold ambitions for our country to win the global race, we must understand that reform of government itself must be at the top of our agenda, or we will reform nothing else.