When a speech makes a case, and isn’t simply a wordcloud of soundbites; when it is elegantly written; when its grand sweep includes Gramsci, the politics of the Netherlands, W.H.Auden, the Monte Carlo Method (no, you’ve never heard of it either), Robert J.Gordon and the media phone-tapping saga; and when it admits fault; in other words, when its author is Michael Gove, there’s a temptation to give it a standing ovation.
Especially if it coincides with a change at the top of the civil service – the main subject of Gove’s speech – which corrects a mistake that should never have been made.
For whatever one thinks of the appointment of David Frost as National Security Adviser, it was never a good idea to have one person serving simultaneously in that post and as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, too. Even Mark Sedwill’s most fervent defenders aren’t contesting that point.
But that Frost’s reputation as one of the few Eurosceptics to have come from among our former Ambassadors, and a powerful sense on the Right that the civil service has become the BBC of British administration, ought not to lull us into giving Gove’s speech a free pass. What does he want and is it right?
Stripped of its historical, scientific, and literary front, the essence of his argument was: the civil service needs to focus on results; decentralise its operations; use data more rigorously; understand mathematical reasoning; rotate staff less often; produce more experts and, startlingly, risk failure by innovating.
Much of this is familar. For example, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, once said that “the system is stacked against civil servants who might want to get things done. There is very little upside gain for an official who succeeds in resolving a problem and a huge downside risk for permitting something to go wrong”.
We know this because it was quoted by Francis Maude, Gove’s predecessor in the Cabinet Office under David Cameron, in a speech reproduced in full on this site. Gove’s praise of learning from innovation comes from the Maude playbook. Indeed, he piloted “what I wasn’t quite brave enough to call the Francis Maude award for failure”.
We suspect that Maude will be back to help try more reform, including at the Cabinet Office, which we identified last month as being in the dock for Covid-19 failures. His return would mark another attempt to push the boulder of civil service reform uphill.
At any rate, what Gove wants seems reasonably clear and pretty sensible, not to mention well-ventilated. Can it be delivered? That question can’t be attempted without, as he himself suggested, considering the Government that is overseeing it. Two points (at least) emerge.
Gove referred to the first himself, though he didn’t spend long on it. Namely, that it’s no use having first-rate civil servants and third-rate politicians. Or, as he put it: “It is important that those of us who are politicians have the knowledge, skills, and indeed humility, to be able to ask the right questions and understand the answers”.
And, yes, that Government would be stronger were some of its top Ministers to be able to rub shoulders with Bayesian statistics. But it’s no use grasping the mathematical language of probability if one can’t master the political art of decision-making.
In other words, the politicians who leave their mark on events, rather than vice-versa, tend to have an “irreducible core” of prejudices, beliefs, instincts and attitudes – which they then roll out. For example, what marked Margaret Thatcher most wasn’t her training as a chemist but her belief in freedom.
So what the Government needs at present isn’t so much Ministers with different academic qualifications but Ministers with more political weight – who know their minds; aren’t just acting on instruction, and have Conservative beliefs that they want to put into effect. Boris Johnson needs a reshuffle to promote some and bring others in.
The second point is that there’s no gain from having first-rate civil servants and third-rate public services, either. Gove’s speech engaged in some of the reform detail – the Gangs Taskforce, free schools, National Citizen Service – but tended to steer clear of painting a big picture.
The reason can only be that it isn’t at all clear where this Government stands on reform, for understandable reasons. Last December’s Conservative Manifesto was concentrated on getting Brexit done and, unlike its disastrous predecessor of 2017, taking no risks at all with the voters.
So more money was promised to fund 50,000 more nurses, 50 million extra GP appointments a year, 20,000 more police, and “millions more invested each week” in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure. But where will the money for all this, and post-Coronavirus tax cuts and spending increases, come from, if there’s low growth?
And how can the public services that we spend those tax receipts on deliver value for money – or even prosper and survive at all – if the Thatcher and late Blair spirit of reform doesn’t blow through Whitehall? How can we sustain the growing proportion of spending, now over half the total, that goes on pensions, health and welfare?
Some are claiming this morning that to approach Gove’s speech, and Sedwill’s departure, in this way is to miss the deeper significance of both – which is that the voice may be the voice of Gove, or even Boris Johnson, but the hands are the hands of Dominic Cummings, set on politicising, commandeering and degrading the civil service.
But that’s to presume that it is neutral and impartial in the first place. Our take is that it is indeed neutral, if by that one means that it has no instrinic party political preference. But it isn’t impartial, strictly speaking – and can’t be, because the way we live, and what we are, could never have it so.
Human beings must have some value system to steer by. And the civil service has by and large been committed, over the past 50 years or so, to a kind of lowest common demoninator one – to a certain ease with such features of the landscape as the mixed economy, NATO, human rights, EU membership.
Put it like that, and the comparison with the BBC returns. At its best, the corporation is providing outstanding broadcasting and information, just as the best of the civil service is still providing outstanding public service. But too often, it is ill at ease with today’s Britain, because those assumptions are no longer automatically held.
So on human rights, for example, a great swathe of voters is enraged when an ambulance-chasing business springs up dedicated, say, to targeting members of the armed forces. Consider the case of Phil Shiner.
Then, to take the biggest instance of all, there is Brexit. The top echelons of the civil service shouldn’t have to support it. But they should at least be comfortable working for a country that is now an self-governing one. If the changes Gove yearns for take place within a framework that Cummings wants, and it’s this one, that’s no bad thing. His “hard rain” is beginning to fall.