Civil Service Reform

"Whitehall Wars" makes for a good headline but a bad debate.  I believe that the time has come to look again our system of administration and consider the case for more radical reform.

But I think it's wrong to see this issue as an attack on the civil service.  Too often, important discussion about the performance of public services descends into this kind of debate.  But just as we must be able to talk about how to raise school standards without denigrating teachers, so we must be able to discuss how the Whitehall machine works without it immediately being interpreted as a declaration of hostilities.

The idea that criticism is only being levelled by a frustrated government facing mid-term blues is obviously wrong.  There are senior figures from both major parties who are raising questions about the current model, and indeed eminent former civil servants.

Of course there are naysayers.  Some have a misty-eyed view of the historic place of the civil service, regarding it as beyond challenge.  Others are former ministers who believe that their particular and stellar talents enabled them to succeed.

 If all that were needed is political leaders with ability and direction, the debate would be different.  And it's obviously true that effective governments have clarity of purpose.  But it shouldn't take debacles such as that over the West Coast Mainline franchise to encourage us to question whether today's system is fit for purpose.

First, there are questions of accountability.  The debate over the role ministers should have  in appointing permanent secretaries is a symptom of this.  But the issues are more profound.  Who, outside Whitehall, would agree to head an organisation where they would be accountable for everything but directly control nothing?  Departmental boards may be part of the answer to improve governance, yet themselves raise issues about ministerial accountability.

And what is the principal role of the civil service?  Gus O'Donnell told me that it was to challenge ministers.  I think challenge is healthy in any organisation.  But shouldn't the first role of the civil service be to support the elected government to deliver?

Second, the support for ministers needs to be re-examined.  Once, private office experience was seen as essential for highflyers in departments.  Today's ministers face challenges and pressures unlike anything experienced by their predecessors, yet ministerial support is weaker than in the past and based on outdated concepts of the role.

Other parliamentary democracies similar to our own - Australia, Canada - give far more support to ministers, allowing them to make more of their own appointments.  For too long we have trapped by a fear about the role of special advisers.  I certainly don't advocate an expansion in the number of spin doctors.  But I do think there is a case to allow ministers to appoint more expert and other advisers to their teams, recruiting from inside and out of Whitehall.

Third, when so many government programmes rely on commissioning, a weakness in the necessary commercial skills can't be dismissed.  This is one area where, in debate, Gus O'Donnell agreed that there was a gap - he thought caused, in part, by the freeze on consultants.  His proposed solution was to be able to pay more to those with specialist skills to attract them in.  But a wider debate is needed about how to ensure that the brightest and best are drawn into Whitehall.

Fourth, the departmental structure in Whitehall is essentially an historic legacy.  But the silos are a problem.  I was astonished to discover how much energy is dissipated through disagreement and challenge between departments, when what we need to fix long term problems is coherence of policy.

I worked with some fine officials in government, and I was struck that many of them seemed as keen to discuss ideas for change as I was.  The Government's own civil service reform plan has been underpinned by the views of those who work within it.

I believe that a more open system, one in which talented individuals could more easily move in and out of the civil service, would be very attractive to able officials.  But before we arrive at solutions, we need a careful analysis of the administrative challenges faced by a modern government, including the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

I am planning a research project to begin this work.  I hope to hear from people inside and out of government - not just former ministers, but civil servants with views and ideas.  There's a good and constructive discussion to be had about what's needed in a modern administration.  It's time to start that debate.

Christopher N Howarth