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By Peter Hoskin
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It’s
been quite a week on Whitehall. Not only was there — as Tim highlighted yesterday
— the whole West Coast Mainline debacle, which resulted in the suspension of
three civil servants. But there was also Francis Maude’s speech on Tuesday,
which emphasised that senior civil servants had, on occasion, “blocked agreed
government policy from going ahead”.

I’ve
written about the aftermath of both for today’s
Times (£)
: a sort of politics-focused post-script to the article
I wrote for them last year (£)
on the policy of civil service reform. Here,
for those who cannot climb beyond the paywall, are five of its points in
digestible form. I apologise for yet
another
five-point summary, it’s just how my brain is wired:

1)
The anger.
Behind this week’s brouhaha is a fair amount of pre-existing
resentment between ministers and the civil service. Here’s how I begin my
article:

“Want
to test out the star key on your keyboard? Then just talk to some of the
combatants in the Blair-Brown wars, and reprint the results. Even now, it’s
****ing this and ****ing that. It’s a reminder that, in politics as in life,
the closest relationships can yield the fiercest insults.

I
mention this because of a similarly toxic relationship in this Government — not
between Liberal Democrats and their Conservative coalition partners, but
between ministers and civil servants. ‘They often don’t have a ****ing clue,’
says one government adviser of officials in his department. The response came
from a civil servant: ‘I know they think we’re all incompetent, but what the ****
do they think they are?’ At least one department has had to act against civil
servants setting up anonymous Twitter accounts to attack ministers and their
advisers.”

Of
course, this doesn’t apply equally across all departments — in some, the
ministerial teams and the officials even get along. But, on the whole, there’s
something there, simmering.

2)
The cause.
There are plenty of theories as to why such anger should persist:
that it’s just a natural product of government; that the civil service is
ideologically opposed to the Coalition; etc, etc. But the overall account I
find most persuasive is woven into Andrew Adonis’s recent book Education,
Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools
. The former Labour schools
minister writes that Whitehall’s problem is “managing change”, for the reason
that “it rarely views change programmes as projects requiring continuity of
management and real expertise in processes and policy”. And so, as I say in my
article, “attempts at change lead to frustration which can lead to — yep — all
that effing and blinding.”

3)
Win the fight, and relations can improve.
It’s telling that in those departments
where the “change” battle has been fought and won — such as in Education, where
Michael Gove’s free schools programme has become the new norm — relations have
generally improved. This isn’t to say that everyone gets along (one of the disgruntled
civil servant Twitter accounts
I mention in my article is from the DfE), nor that there isn’t potential for conflict over other reforms. But it does suggest
the benefits of having a properly thought-through policy, and sticking to it.

4)
The Heywood factor.
Much attention will now be focused on Jeremy Heywood, who,
as the Cabinet Secretary, is the civil service’s man inside No.10. Tim
mentioned him in his blog yesterday. David Davis attacked him over the BAE
merger
last week. And it’s true: Mr Heywood does wield an extraordinary amount
of influence inside this government, which makes it worrying to hear that he
has expressed his “scepticism” about the implementation of IDS’s Universal
Credit. But I’m also told the Cabinet Secretary is broadly supportive of Mr Maude’s
crucial plans to reform the civil service, and was involved in discussions to
make sure they’re deliverable. The question is whether he will get behind future, more radical, reform measures, such as any which tie officials’ contracts
to performance.   

5)
What next?
The potential for further anger is certainly great: there’s the
process of civil service reform; the DfT mess; the attacks on Mr Heywood, which
may become a proxy for attacks on David Cameron; and so on. Much of this is
understandable, and the greater pressure for reform ought to be welcomed, but my fear is that it will overspill into something worse. I
finish my article thus:

“Any increase in hostilities
could scupper good ideas, such as the suggestion by the former Cabinet
Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, that senior civil servants be paid more. Politicians
may simply balk at the idea, but this policy has succeeded in Singapore, on the
ground that you get what you pay for. In the wake of the West Coast rail
fiasco, fewer but better would be a good principle across Whitehall.

In the end, those who want a new
Civil Service may have to stem their collective anger. There’s a point at which
creative tension can become something altogether more destructive. Ask Tony and
Gordon.”

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