Do you know who wants to reform the Civil Service? The civil servants themselves, or at least some of them. This was the main contention made by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, in his opening remarks to a joint ConservativeHome and Institute for Government fringe event yesterday. He described a recent cohort of top-end recruits as “bright, energetic, full of hunger to change the world … and all frustrated with how the system currently works.”
Maude is, of course, someone else who wants to reform the Civil Service – and not just for the sake of its employees. Although he was careful to praise the work of those bright and energetic civil servants, he also described a bureaucracy that is, in the words of the distinguished political historian Peter Hennessey, “less than the sum of its parts”. Hence the Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan, which was published last year and is already having an effect. “By the next election,” said Maude, “the Civil Service will be smaller, flatter, quicker, digital, less hierarchical…” You get the point.
Also on the panel was another man with ministerial experience, Nick Herbert MP, and he shared Maude’s broad thesis – but, now that he’s out of Government, was a touch more forthright about it. “Civil servants have been resistant to the idea that they should be more accountable to ministers,” was just one of his verbal punches. He reckoned that the Tory leadership erred, before entering power, by promising to restrict the number of political advisers. “I frankly felt completely under-supported in my ability to tell what was going on in the department and implement programmes.”
Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, also alighted on the matter of accountability. For him, though, it’s more ambiguous than just bureaucratic resistance to ministerial oversight: “If you look at policies, you can’t really separate the political involvement from the Civil Service involvement. You can’t say who’s responsible.” So who’s to blame when it goes wrong? Or, indeed, praise if it goes right?
Aside from what is, the panel also talked extensively about what is to come. Anne McElvoy of The Economist warned that the Conservatives would need a more detailed plan ahead of the next election than they had at the last. And, citing challenges such as an ageing population, Herbert added the that plan may need to be pretty big: “One question is whether a new system of government is required to deal with these challenges; whether the old idea of ministerial silos is no longer fit for purpose.”
Whether or not Maude agrees that such an extensive reorganisation is,necessary, he certainly thinks that more needs to be done. “All organisations are either getting better or they’re getting worse,” he told one questioner, before adding, “It’s never going to be finished.” But fringe events do finish – and, with that, this one did.