By Peter Hoskin
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Civil service reform has always met with a similar problem to one that afflicts Lords reform: how do you substantially change an organisation that has a heavy say in the matter? Given how closely interwoven government and Whitehall are, a proper answer to that question may never be found — but at least Francis Maude is trying, with the consultation he’s announced today. The Cabinet Office minister is asking think-tanks outside government to look at ways to shake up Sir Humphrey. And he wants them to focus on New Zealand, where ministers have greater powers to hire and fire the top-ranking staff in their departments.
In a way, this consultation is an admission of failure on the part of the government. Ministers have long talked about making the civil service more accountable, just as they have long talked about learning from countries such as New Zealand and Singapore. Indeed, as I revealed in a Times column (Headline: ‘Don’t boast Mr Maude, you’ve barely started’ (£)) last year, the Treasury asked outside experts to their rate their plans for reducing Whitehall’s headcount — and the experts said that they weren’t nearly ambitious enough; that some departments could be cut by 90 per cent. And yet very little has come of all this. The hobbling pace of civil service reform was, of course, one of the things that most frustrated Steve Hilton before he left government earlier this year. His view was that it was preventing reform from happening elsewhere too.
But it is for these reasons that we ought to welcome this consultation, too. It’s said to be the first time that the government has ‘outsourced’ policy development in this way — which suggests that they are now more determined to look beyond the civil service’s quibbles and qualms. Whether it’s on this, or his attitude towards some of the more truculent union bosses, Mr Maude’s growing impatience is becoming one of the leitmotifs of this government. Let’s hope he gets somewhere this time.