Although overtaken by the Covid-19 crisis, this Government remains committed to the Herculean (perhaps Sisyphean) task of reforming the Civil Service.
Michael Gove has spoken about the need to tackle ‘group think’, and Dominic Cummings is an avowed enthusiast for cracking down on Whitehall’s reliance on generalists and bringing in outsiders to shake things up.
The practice of shuffling civil servants around Whitehall on a regular basis, which fuels the generalist culture, not only makes it very difficult for them to develop expertise in a given area, but it can also make it hard to hold individuals accountable for failure, and over time this inevitably has an effect on the efficacy of the Civil Service.
In Part V of his excellent essay ‘The Gervais Principle‘, an analysis of organisations through the lens of The Office, Venkatesh Rao describes how individuals in complex organisations conspire to offload blame onto the organisation itself, which instead accrues inside it as a sort of ‘dark matter’.
He then describes the effect this has on the organisation over time, which cumulate in “the organization itself gradually turning into an incomprehensible, byzantine and increasingly error-prone maze, as it pretends to evolve and self-correct”. Critics of the Civil Service probably wouldn’t dissent from that assessment.
Worse, the Civil Service lacks the correction mechanism Rao perceives in modern capitalism: a relatively short institutional life-cycle which allows for regular resets through mergers and take-overs. It thus ends up in the middle-management mire foreseen by William H Whyte in his seminal The Organisation Man, the consequences of which for the end-user were illuminatingly described by George Bathurst in his article yesterday.
But the war on generalists could have perils of its own. Whilst circulating civil servants around Whitehall may contribute to the creation of a broad ‘Civil Service culture’, the alternative could be the emergence of much more powerful departmental cultures.
A department populated by long-serving specialists risks becoming deeply committed to an institutional outlook, one bolstered by the very expertise Cummings et al is out to attract and the ideological preoccupations which attract able people to a career in a single sector. It may thus lack the flexibility to adapt to changes of course under different governments.
(It’s telling that the Department for International Development, which the Prime Minister is abolishing, is one of the those with the biggest reputation for such a culture. The battle between the Government and a deeply pro-EU Foreign Office would be another example of the problem.)
Such a development would only deepen the disadvantage faced by ministers, who do tend to move around, unless accompanied by further reforms to help them get an immediate political grip – further complicating the whole process.
A common assumption of Conservative reformers is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Government to devise an effective way to simulate the dynamics of the private sector. It isn’t obvious that this is any less true for creative destruction than anything else.
The tragedy of Civil Service reform may ultimately be that no amount of huffing and puffing can replicate Schumpeter’s Gale.