For Prime Ministers, reshuffles are risky. For the civil service, though, they are full of opportunity. A new minister isn’t necessarily a better minister, nor one with an agenda more agreeable to the Whitehall establishment. But because it takes time to get the full picture, the newbie is vulnerable to old tricks.
Sir Humphrey knows not to push his luck. An incoming minister will be familiar with the broad brushstrokes of government policy and ready for any blatant obstructionism. Rather, it’s in the fine detail of policy implementation that fast ones can be pulled.
In a recent blog post, Dominic Cummings – who was an advisor to Michael Gove in his previous role as Education Secretary – provides a good example. It concerns an advisory committee called the A Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB) – which played a little-known but necessary part in the Govian crusade for credible qualifications:
“In 2012, we announced that the DfE would step back from controlling A Levels and give universities control… The main mechanism was ALCAB. It was a nightmare to set up partly because although subject experts very much wanted to be involved the administrators who control universities wanted to stay out of the controversy and said to us in the DfE ‘we don’t want to have to say publicly that A Level papers are bad’.”
Of course, no one likes a critic:
“The DfE hated giving away control, obviously, and hated ALCAB. The very point of the process – a sword of Damocles in the form of eminent professors saying ‘crap questions’ each year – was supposed to force the DfE, exam boards, and Ofqual to raise their game. You can imagine how popular this was.”
Michael Gove was shuffled out of the education brief last year – and, now, the axe has fallen on ALCAB too. Are we to suppose that this was a decision in which Nicky Morgan, the current Education Secretary, took the initiative? Or did DfE civil servants make all the running? Cummings has a pretty good idea:
“It was probably a letter buried deep in her box weeks ago that she had no reason to suspect meant she was being used to subvert reform and entrench Whitehall’s power. It is impossible for a new minister to spot all such things – you don’t know what you don’t know. We can also safely bet that No10 has not the faintest idea about what ALCAB is or what the annual review process was supposed to do.”
He is right not to blame Morgan. In every department, Ministers and their special advisors are massively outnumbered by the bureaucratic hierarchy. And while the former have no more than few years in position, the latter is permanent:
“…whoever ‘wins’ the election, they will remain in charge. The MPs of all parties are largely content for this situation to continue. In the focus groups, swing voters will continue to say ‘they’re all the same’ with much more accuracy than they realise, but few in Westminster are really listening and even fewer know what is to be done…”
So, what should we do?
For a start, we must stop sending ministers into hostile territory (i.e. Whitehall) without sufficient support. A couple of SpAds per department is pathetically inadequate.
The second crucial element in any reform is continuity. Individual politicians may come and go, but political parties – if they are to exercise democratic oversight and control of the functions of government – need an institutional memory. The major political parties should each have a mini civil service of their own – policy experts who can supply ministers and shadow ministers with the intelligence they need to keep tabs on Whitehall.
Of course, you might think that our politicians should have fewer members of staff, not more. It’s an opinion that many people would heartily agree with – not least, Sir Humphrey himself.