Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee. He is MP for Harwich and North Essex.
The appointment of Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service presents a new opportunity to make a fresh start on the relationship between the Government and the civil servants. It follows a period of deteriorating confidence and increasing disillusion between the Government and its officials.
Ministers must want to end the paralysing effects of regular disputes with the civil servants upon whom they depend for policy and advice and for the delivery of their decisions. Ministers need to wake up to the fact that, on any realistic time horizon, this is the only civil service there is. There is no instant alternative. By all means complain about it (best in private), but nurture it too. That means improving Whitehall leadership and addressing Whitehall culture. This appointment should jolt the coming generation of Whitehall leaders out of any remaining complacency that there must be change. But what kind of change?
Michael Gove’s Ditchley lecture about Whitehall highlighted at least 18 criticisms, most of them familiar and about which the civil service has been too complacent for too long. Michael also proposed six main solutions: relocating Government decision-making out of London: recruiting policymakers from “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”; a “more thoughtful approach to devolution”; promoting officials in-role, to reduce churn and to retain talent; and re-establishing a “properly-resourced campus for training those in Government”.
Sadly, that last and vital proposal has already been dropped, because the Treasury knew nothing of this announcement before it was made. So back we go to just on-line learning and teaching by contractors. Overall, the speech did not give a clear vision of what sort of institution we want it to be.
It is curious that a speech addressing organisational dysfunction should place so little emphasis on the need for the civil service to develop its own stronger leadership. The new National Leadership Centre has been established to develop better leaders across the public sector, and should be supported by ministers.
Like any other organisation, the Civil Service depends above all on capable leaders. Equip every official with subject knowledge, expertise and technical skills, fix the structure, stop the churn, and Whitehall will still show many of the Ditchley list of failings unless it develops better leaders. And leadership is not just an accident of personality. A great concert pianist may be born with exceptional gifts, but won’t succeed without copious instruction, practice, reviewing and learning. Capable leaders are the same.
A telling piece of evidence to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee inquiry on public procurement came from Lord Levene. He reformed defence procurement in the 1980s, and came back to advise the Cameron administration in 2010. He observed how in 1985 he found that 1970s reforms had been “replaced by the bureaucracy which took charge again, and the system soon reverted to type”; and also that when he returned in 2010, again he found “a situation where we were effectively back at the point at which I found myself in the spring of 1985.”
In both cases, temporary radical and apparently successful leadership had failed to leave any permanent effect. What should be the lesson of this? Yes, importing fresh leadership from outside can be very positive, but permanent transformation of capability and culture requires much more than just temporarily imposing a new person to provide better direction.
Nor did the Ditchley speech present any ideas that would address weaknesses in Whitehall culture, even though it complained about it being “risk-averse”. With all the blame handed out by ministers these days, why are we surprised about that? We must learn from Francis Maude’s experience of reforming Whitehall. He achieved some significant and lasting organisational changes. He would however be the first to agree that he was disappointed by the very limited impact on Whitehall culture.
He later said that he should have addressed that first, and not as an afterthought. Instead, he had laid emphasis on trying to gain political control over Permanent Secretary appointments and ministers’ private offices. He got some changes, but the culture remained unchanged.
The lessons of his period are twofold. First, so much more can be achieved in collaboration with Whitehall. Second, to attempt to force structural change without addressing culture is the slowest and least effective means of achieving meaningful change. The fruits from his fighting against civil servants are hard to find. Reform cannot be forced on such a large and living institution.
The appointment of Simon Case as Head of the Civil Service is an opportunity for ministers and officials to agree how to address leadership and culture in Whitehall. It is also a signal that the civil service must wake up to its own need to reform its beliefs, attitudes and behaviours (which is what we mean by ‘culture’). Ministers and officials need to agree about which attitudes and behaviours they want to strengthen, and which need to be rooted out. This should be at the core of leadership development.
These choices need to be based upon a clear expression of purpose and values, by which leaders must be expected to lead by their example. That includes ministers. Experience from all organisations show that lasting change cannot be achieved without unity and a clear example from the top. A few enthusiasts will not be enough to defeat institutional inertia. The resisters (and there are always some) have to be confronted and if necessary, forced out, but the resisters will win if everyone senses hesitancy or division at the top. A few extra weirdos and misfits who can do Monte Carlo Method or Bayesian statistics may be nice to have, but they will not alter the culture of Whitehall one jot.