By Peter Hoskin
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Another in our series of posts preparing for the reshuffle, and I'm afraid it’s the gloomiest so far. Remember how I said earlier that a reshuffle could have an effect on the internal mood of the Coalition? The flipside of that is that I doubt it could accomplish much more. When it comes to actually getting things done, there are reasons to think that a change of personnel will barely make a difference at all.
The first of these reasons is the nature of the Coalition itself. To a greater extent than most governments, its agenda is already settled — that’s what the Coalition Agreement is for. And even if there is room to exploit the gaps in that document, anything meaningful would have to be discussed and hammered out to make sure that it suits both sides of the government. This is draining enough for ministers who have been in their jobs since the beginning and know their way around, let alone for someone who is new to their role. A new minister would find it very difficult to avoid being boxed in by all the existing parameters.
But the main reason for scepticism is a part of British politics that has almost come to define stubbornness in the face of change: the civil service. Of course, we’ve heard all the grumbles about this “permanent government” before — but they still can't be overstressed. On the one side, we have a handful of ministers and their advisers. On the other, we have almost half-a-million civil servants, many of who are hangovers from governments past and have little incentive to push themselves on behalf of their new bosses. “Don’t get me started,” says one adviser when I ask about his struggles with Whitehall’s unelected class. Another prefers to describe them as “a better opposition than Labour”.
Not all of this, however, should be regarded as maliciousness of the part of the civil service. Governments can barely expect anything else from a large organisation that is so inconsistently managed. Even the hierarchies and promotion structures of the civil service seem geared towards cock-up and intransigence. I’ve often heard it said that Whitehall’s long-standing problems with computer systems — the missed deadlines and billion-pound overspends — can partially be attributed to its “merry-go-round” attitude towards jobs. One day there’s someone who has just got used to the contracts and the contractors; the next there’s someone else, starting afresh.
We could certainly do with a smaller civil service. As I said in a post a few weeks ago, and revealed in the Times (£) last year, a review done for the Treasury in 2010 suggested that some departments (e.g. the Department of Communities and Local Government) be cut down by 90 per cent. But, actually, this is not an argument about size, but about quality. It’s persistently astonishing how unaccountable civil servants are for the quality of their work (which ought to be the implementation of the government’s policies). Giving ministers the ability to hire and fire senior officials is treated as a radical departure, when really it should be the least that’s expected.
This is why it’s encouraging to see Francis Maude taking civil service reform outside of the civil service, so that it might actually get somewhere. He has already cited the example of New Zealand, but there’s also much to be learnt from the compact and business-like civil service of Singapore. Contracts abound; people can be sacked if they don’t perform; and leading civil servants earn salaries and bonuses equal to those in the upper strata of the private sector. That last prescription would probably be controversial over here, particularly at a time of austerity, but Singaporean ministers see it as crucial to attracting the best graduates into the profession. And they seem to be getting their money’s worth, too. Singapore’s civil service is widely regarded as one of — if not the — best in the world.
The problem is that, for all of Mr Maude’s vigour, so many British politicians have tried to reform the civil service and failed. The sense of frustration grew so great during the Blair years that some advisers even concocted a plan to move the Prime Minister’s staff out of the rabbit warren that is No.10 and into a more modern office, partially so that they could function as a more effective political bloc against the blob that is Whitehall. If you’re wondering what would have happened to No.10, it still would have been used for occasions such as meetings with foreign leaders … but it doesn’t matter as, yet again, nothing came of it.
Of course, it’s not all terrible. Some ministers do struggle successfully against their departments; as in the case of Michael Gove, who came into government with a detailed plan for reform and has been a brilliant proponent of it ever since. But we can’t rely on putting together a government of Goves. Until the civil service is reformed, the effect of any reshuffle will be limited from the off.