Iain Mansfield is Head of Innovation at Policy Exchange
ConservativeHome has consistently highlighted the surreal fact that, since 2010, Conservative governments have consistently chosen to appoint more Labour party members than Conservative party members to public roles. This is undoubtedly an oddity – and something that flies in the face of the behaviour of previous governments of all colours. But in truth, this is a matter that goes much wider than party politics.
Nine out of 10 public appointees have no declared political affiliation. But what is undoubtedly the case – as aptly demonstrated this week, when the Chief Executive of the Lake District chose to criticise the Park as being ‘too white’ – is that whether the government in power has been New Labour, the Coalition or the Conservatives, those appointed are overwhelmingly drawn from a narrow segment of society whose worldview too often shares little with those of the ordinary citizens of Bolsover or Bishop Auckland.
This imbalance of views – a circumstance exposed in both 2016 and 2019 as having been drastically out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of the nation – should be a principal target for reform.
The deficit that the Right endures in certain areas of public policy making goes well beyond public appointments and, as I have previously argued on this site, remains one of Tony Blair’s most substantive legacies. The Human Rights Act’s commandment that ministers must consider the human rights implication of any Bill brought before Parliament; the manner in which Public Sector Equality Impact Assessments are carried out; the exclusion of the UK’s national interest from the International Development Act; or the network of pseudo-independent (but state-funded) organisations and pressure groups that lobby almost exclusively for a particular kind of greater state intervention all provide a permanent pressure against the reforming instincts of government ministers.
In Policy Exchange’s latest report, Whitehall Reimagined, written by myself and a former special adviser to three Chancellors, Warwick Lightfoot, we argue that the civil service requires significant reform if it is to rise to the challenges facing our society and maximise the opportunities of Brexit. Many of these should be uncontroversial: reducing turnover, strengthening digital skills, improving the use of evidence, increasing the use of specialists and explicitly setting out the supremacy of Parliament and domestic law. Yet the scale of the challenge can be hard to grasp for those unfamiliar with Whitehall.
In approximately a quarter of departments, a new minister will find four in 10 of their senior officials have been in post less than a year. In my own civil service career, I never spent more than two and a half years in a single role and served in five different departments within a decade – none of which is unusual for those who are promoted relatively rapidly.
Though fewer than one in five entrants to the prestigious fast-stream had a background in science, engineering or mathematics – and with numerical fluency and data interpretation being essential skills for any mid-level or senior civil servant – the civil service recently and inexplicably abolished the basic numeracy tests for the scheme.
The rigorous assessment boards on which promotion formerly depended have also largely been phased out. Indeed, in some departments it is forbidden – deemed akin to racial discrimination – to ask a job applicant about their educational qualifications, despite the fact that one might think that whether a candidate possessed a Masters in Data Analysis, Health Administration or Criminal Justice would be relevant information a recruiter might wish to consider for certain roles.
We firmly reject the calls for politicisation. Honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality must remain the bedrock of the civil service. But as the former Chair of Ofcom, Dame Patricia Hodgson, said in her foreword to the report, “Whitehall needs more access to talent, streamlined processes and the confidence to work closely with outside experts and with political advisers able to provide improved support for Ministers, including junior ministers.”
It is essential to strengthen the ability of ministers to deliver on the mandate on which they were elected. To do this we recommend strengthening the capability of No. 10, reviving the use of Extended Ministerial Offices which allow ministers to bring together experts committed to delivering for them and increased use of specialists, in particular practitioners with proven expertise in delivery. A more self-critical approach to evidence and the creation and systematic use of ‘red teams’ – versatile experts whose job is to challenge existing dogma – would also help generate fresh policy ideas.
Procurement is one of the areas where we highlight there being the biggest need for change – and where Brexit provides some of the greatest opportunities to reshape processes to serve the national interest. In defence, an Office of Net Assessment reporting directly to the Defence Secretary – as first recommended by Policy Exchange – would ensure procurement decision are founded on evidence-based strategic analysis, unencumbered by institutional interests and old conventional wisdoms.
In civilian procurement, the bureaucratic and anti-commercial requirements of the Official Journal of the European Union should be abolished. And in all large-scale procurement, the creation of British jobs should be used as one criteria for evaluation, provided the supplier is capable of delivering cost effectively, to ensure that government spending supports job creation and regional regeneration across the UK.
On 31 January, the British people will ‘take back control’, bringing the destiny of the UK back into our own hands. Moving forward, whoever would have guessed that the unglamorous yet crucial subject of Whitehall reform would shoot to the top of the agenda? Adopting the recommendations of our report will lead to better decision making, streamlined processes and improved accountability, which will in turn drive improved policy making and better public services for the whole of the UK.