By Paul Goodman
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In "Yes Minister", Sir Humphrey is infinitely more intelligent than Jim Hacker, and invariably tries to frustrate whatever changes the politician wants to make to the system – but, if given an instruction, he follows it: it would be against his sense of his professional pride for him not to do so. Although I have been a politician, like Hacker, I have never – unlike him – been a Minister, and have presumed that the Jay & Lynn portrait of the civil service is broadly unchanged. In other words, it may be an oligarchy in awe of its own self-perpetuation, but it is also an efficient and able one, in which the spirit of Northcote and Trevelyan still lingers.
Furthermore, I suspect that some of the reported problems with the civil service are actually the fault of politicians. Too many Ministers don't seem to sail with a clear sense of direction. This being so, they get pushed around by the wind and the waves: indeed, some seem more preoccupied by their image with journalists than delivery in office. And those who complain about civil servants are, arguably, setting back reform rather than furthering it. This is because the Government can't enact its programme smoothly and efficiently without the co-operation of the civil service, and picking a public scrap with it is, on the face of it, counter-productive.
However, my confidence in the system has been shaken by three unmissable trends – one of which I saw myself when I was in the Commons, one of which is visible to all, and the last of which I hear from every Minister I meet. The first is a tendency of Sir Humphrey to instruct Hacker, rather than vice-versa. Part of my last brief in opposition was counter-extremism policy, which had a clear crossover with counter-violent extremism policy. Some of the civil servants who worked on it had ideas of their own, which is good) but also thought that these were better than those of the politicians, which is not good at all – since the latter are, after all, in charge .
David Cameron had to fight part of the civil service to get his Munich speech through the system. Whether you agree with its contents or not, that was a very bad sign. The second trend is the tendency of Sir Humphrey, if his instructions aren't heeded, not to follow Hacker's. Michael Gove is often cited as an example of why this isn't true: a strong Minister, it's claimed, can impose his will on a department. But the Education Secretary's story also helps to prove the opposite case. During his early months, his department, famed for taming Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, strained hard to tame him.
Gove was all at sea over the Building Schools for the Future programme and over school sport. It wasn't until he had recruited more SPADs loyal to his policy rather than the system that he was able to get the department in shape – evidence, were any more needed, that the original restriction on special advisers was a big mistake. Finally, the evidence of Ministers with memories of the Major years is unambiguous: civil service standards have declined. In a nutshell, their complaint is that if civil servants can't draft letters in clear English, they won't implement policy in a clear way. And this, they claim, is too often the case.
If asked why this has happened, they tend to point a finger at the way in which Labour's "diversity agenda" for the civil service was implemented: background or gender or ethnicity came to count for more than ability, and the institutional memory of the machine was stripped out by change for change's sake. David Miliband's destruction of the Foreign Office library was symbolic of what happened once the barbarians got past the gates. A cleansing of personnel rather than paperwork took place at the Treasury. Douglas Carswell is a trenchant critic of the system. But when some Ministers talk about it, they sound like Carswell on amphetamines.
Which brings me to Rachel Sylvester's column in today's Times (£), which chronicles Iain Duncan Smith's troubles with the civil service over the Universal Credit. Having been responsible for tracking the tax credit system when I was a Shadow Minister, and sat on a Select Committee enquiry into the Child Support Agency, I've reservations about any system which relies – as Universal Credit does – on real-time reporting. Civil servants are under an obligation to tell the Work and Pensions Secretary so if they agree. But they are also under one to implement the plan if he insists on it.
Sylvester quotes a Government source as saying that “IDS has been an incredibly good minister and really determined to get
this reform through, but he has been banging his head against official
intransigence, lack of will and at times deception". Another has put it more bluntly to me: "They lied to him," I was told (about the progress of the scheme). It is hard to know how much of the general difficulty is with recalcitrance rather than incompetence, but horror stories are legion. CCHQ staff, who went into talks with civil servants about the Thatcher funeral arrangements bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, staggered out frazzled and zonked.
The Cabinet Office's prescription for reform is a smaller and better fast-stream; more private sector experience; rotation on the basis of policy delivery, not career development; more expert special advisers (in short, kitchen Cabinets), and Permanent Secretaries chosen by Secretaries of State from a shortlist drawn up independently. There is reason to pause before nodding all this through. The unwritten deal which kept the civil service going was that though the pay was constrained, the pensions were generous – and while the searing light of transparency might burn up Hacker, it would never consume Sir Humphrey.
If that deal is torn up, and civil servants are thrust into the public spotlight too, who on earth will want to be one? Won't entering Whitehall become more and more like entering Westminster – something that fewer top-flight people want to do? The questions are good ones but the answer is unavoidable. This is the age of transparency. The system must get used to it – or perish. (Many Labour ex-Ministers and present Conservative ones agree about this.) And if senior civil servants believe that they shouldn't be in the public spotlight – for example, by being grilled by Select Committees – they shouldn't write public tributes, not even to Margaret Thatcher.
One source I spoke to complained about the way in which civil servants have seized control of the honours system, insisting that they sit on awards committees not as Ministers' representatives but in a personal capacity. The example may be absurd: after all, there are far more important things for politicians to worry about than honours. But it is also instructive. If the system controls the honours, it will simply honour itself. Politicians may be imperfect – no, they are imperfect – but they are ultimately sackable. They must therefore be in control of government. The Cabinet Office's dreams have a sound base.