Let’s begin by talking about me – or, rather, about two articles that I once wrote. The first was for the Times (£) in 2011, and it sneered at a bunch of efficiency savings that Francis Maude had just announced. “Don’t boast, Mr Maude,” declared the headline, “You’ve barely started.” The second was for this website last year, and it was altogether less disapproving. In fact, it hailed Maude as one of the great reforming ministers of this Government. What can I say? Consistency is not a virtue that opinion journalists possess in abundance.
In my defence, however, there was truth in both articles. When Maude was appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office, after the last election, he didn’t have much of a plan to implement. There was then a naïve hope among ministers, perhaps nurtured by their long absence from Government, that the Civil Service really was what it described itself as: a purring Rolls-Royce that every other country eyed covetously. Certain shoeless revolutionaries inside No.10 may have yearned for reform, but there was little appetite elsewhere. Jobs would have to be shed and savings found, in pursuit of deficit reduction, but that was about it.
But then something happened to those ministers – and that was Government itself. It turned out that, far from the pictures in the brochure, Whitehall was actually a marshland of inverted priorities and subverted loyalties. Reform would be needed not just for saving money, but also to get stuff done. And so it was that Maude became, by many accounts, a keener and much more aggressive advocate for change. He started to devise a programme for achieving it.
The Civil Service Reform Plan of 2012 may have taken two years to arrive, after that initial spell of unpreparedness, as well as plenty of resistance from senior officials, but it was no less important for the delay. Here was a commitment to reform that, thanks to being signed by both the Prime Minister and the Head of the Civil Service, actually seemed like that – a commitment. And while some of its policies may not sound like much, they were still bolder than what had been accomplished previously. The idea that Permanent Secretaries should be more accountable for their department’s policy work, or that civil servants should have skills that are more specific to their roles, was radical to this bureaucracy.
This plan also introduced one of the major themes of Maude’s ministry: the notion of a self-reforming Civil Service. In his foreword, he highlighted the labours of a group of HMRC workers who “were improving productivity and performance not because managers had ordained it, but because their own commitment to public service motivated them to want to do things better.” This has been the thinking behind many of the measures he has implemented, on top of those in that original document, since. The recent appointment of John Manzoni as Chief Executive of the Civil Service is a case in point. This former private sector executive is, as I explained a few weeks ago, tasked with continually improving and modernising Whitehall. He’s there to keep reform going even if every elected politician suddenly – wonderfully! – disappeared.
Do civil servants appreciate these policies? It depends which ones you ask. Broadly speaking, it’s the younger, fresher ones who are happy to board the HMS Maude, and set sail for a more businesslike land. Whereas some of the more senior mandarins, comfy in their oaken offices, are eager to sink it. Barely a reshuffle passes without high-level speculation about the fate of the minister in the Cabinet Office. Yet the minister abides.
This ingrained opposition to Maude’s plans helps explain why, despite his enthusiasm for a Civil Service that sorts itself out, he has had to run many of his operations from the centre. One of the things that he did do from Day One, and to an extent that I didn’t really appreciate at the time, was change the composition of the Cabinet Office. Various groups have been either established or expanded within his vicinity. There’s the Efficiency and Reform Group, designed to unearth savings in every department. There’s the Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”), which turns psychological research into tangible policy. And then, most striking of all against a pinstripe backdrop, there’s the Government Digital Service, a kind of Google-within that is trying to make Whitehall an appier place.
The work of these groups is – as the Cabinet Office has increasingly become – varied. But a common denominator is that they all achieve a lot for relatively little. Take the Efficiency and Reform Group. It’s just a handful of people, yet it is on for identifying £20 billion worth of savings in this Parliament. For once, the rhetoric of “Whitehall cuts” actually means something. Maude has a record of delivering them.
Little wonder, then, why George Osborne is now giving speeches to and about the Efficiency and Reform Group. There was a time when the Treasury pointedly set itself apart from the Cabinet Office, but now it is much more enthusiastic about Maude’s work. It has to be. With the deficit still pushing £100 billion, and expected to remain until at least 2018, the Chancellor and his team need all the help they can get. Otherwise, what will become of those tax cuts they have so carelessly set-up for the next Conservative manifesto?
Which brings us shuddering into the question of whether Maude can achieve anything more. Has he picked all the fruit there is to pick along Whitehall’s boulevards? The answer, from those around him at least, is a firm “No”. They regard the next Parliament as the really crucial one. Not only will many of the Cabinet Office’s current policies, such as the digitisation of government, be reaching ripeness. There’ll also be new areas of opportunity, such as when ministers are no longer tied into the horribly expensive contracts that Labour signed. It’s here, they say, where the really Big Money will be saved. It’s a programme large enough for the next five years and beyond.
Presuming, of course, that Maude gets to implement that programme. But this is one of the things that distinguishes his polices: they have a chance of persisting even in the event of a different governing party. And it’s not just that they will be guarded by people like John Manzoni and the members of the Efficiency and Reform Group. It’s that the Opposition agrees with them too. In a recent speech to the Institute for Government, Labour’s Michael Dugher signed up to many of Maude’s reforms. A greater say for the Prime Minister in appointing Permanent Secretaries? Yep. Extended Ministerial Offices? Uh-huh. The Government’s Capabilities Plan? That too. One of the few things that Dugher said against Maude was that he is “like a man trying to fight everyone in the pub at the same time.”
But better a fighter than a wimp – particularly when, as the recent “progress report” demonstrates, there’s still so much to fight for. In that document, Maude writes that “changes in culture require strong, coherent leadership”. Perhaps there’ll be a time when the culture has changed and Whitehall doesn’t need controlling quite so strongly from the centre. But that time isn’t now. Maude remains the best man for the job.