Civil Service Reform

This week sees the return of ‘Yes Prime Minister' to our TV screens.  It's based on the successful play first staged at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

We all have our favourite quotes from the old series.  One of mine is when Sir Humphrey protests that the Prime Minister has his own car, a nice house in London, a place in the country, endless publicity and a pension for life, so "what more does he want?"

Bernard replies "I think he wants to govern Britain" to which Sir Humphrey retorts: "Well stop him, Bernard!"

I played this clip at the beginning of a report which I made with Radio 4's Today programme this week where I set out the case for reform of the government machine.

For the public, 'Yes Minister' is a comedy.  But as a new Minister arriving at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice two and a half years ago, I soon realised that it's an essential training manual.

A permanent, politically neutral Civil Service was established over 150 years ago.  Its impartiality is held up as a strength.  But my experience in Whitehall made me question whether the model still works.

Despite being in charge of a major reform of the police, I fought for over a year before I was permitted my own policy adviser.  And I found that although I was personally accountable for any failure, the officials - many of whom I rated very highly - didn't actually work for me: they worked for "Sir Humphrey".

It's not just me who's concerned.  This week Tony Blair called the civil service ‘hopelessly bureaucratic', and former ministers from both major parties share my view.

Horsham MP Francis Maude, who is in charge of civil service reform, has made an excellent start, reducing the size of the service by a third and abolishing over 100 quangos.

But there's more to be done.  The red boxes which carried my ministerial papers when the rest of the world uses e-mail are symbolic of an antiquated machine - designed not in the last century but the one before.

At a time when our country faces huge challenges, and the State spends record sums of public money, we need to bring in the brightest and the best to administer government.  It's time to challenge old dogma, open up Whitehall, and let expertise in.

Christopher N Howarth