Coffee House

The gumming up of Whitehall

17 December 2012

12:36 PM

17 December 2012

12:36 PM

Tony Blair is paying a visit to journalists in the Commons this week for a festive lunch. Last week, David Cameron complained to lunching hacks about the ‘gumming up’ of government; perhaps the former Prime Minister will wish to add his own thoughts today on the ingredients of that sticky gum that makes the progress of the Whitehall machine so glutinous.

One of the gummy bits in Whitehall at the moment is the way permanent secretaries are appointed. Last week the Civil Service Commission blocked plans by Francis Maude to allow ministers to pick the most senior civil servants in their departments from a list of approved candidates, opting instead for an independent panel to recommend candidates.


The Commission’s rationale for blocking Maude’s plan is that it could have diluted the neutrality of the civil service. John Reid was on the Daily Politics a few minutes ago, arguing that the change would politicise senior civil servants. But those developing the reforms argued that it would simply allow a Secretary of State to choose someone they believed they could build an effective working relationship from the list of those already approved. Ministers still wouldn’t have the opportunity to sneak in someone who would compromise the political neutrality of the service, as all candidates would have been vetted.

Caroline Spelman spoke to Coffee House last week about the importance of giving ministers a say in the appointment process. It is something all three main parties support: this is, after all, a unique situation where they all have very recent experience of government or are currently experiencing government. Jack Straw told the Chamber in June that when he was a minister ‘the point I made to those departments was that if I was to take responsibility for the whole department and for the work of that permanent secretary, I needed to have some confidence in the individual at the official top of the organisation’.

This is not actually a civil servants vs ministers row: those in the civil service are also keen to avoid situations where a personality clash meant the most senior civil servant in a government department wasn’t getting on with the most senior minster. But even on this, there are scars trailing down some backs. I understand that one Labour minister was once told that if they didn’t pick the preferred candidate for their permanent secretary, Whitehall would block everything they tried to do. The risk of having a permanent secretary thrust upon you as a minister is that they could act as a gum themselves.

The dilemma for Maude is whether he now waits to see how the next two appointments – the new Permanent Secretaries at DECC and the Home Office – work out, or whether he legislates to give ministers more power over appointments, against the Commission’s wishes.

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Show comments
  • Maidmarrion

    A petty little point I know ,but who is paying for a load of hacks and Blairs festive lunch and WHY?
    Blairs words going to be reported in glowing terms by a load of sycophantic,useless free loaders?
    If Mr Fisk is there I’d pay for his lunch but no other is worthy in my book.

  • Jack Dawson

    The whole damn country’s gummed up.

  • Cogito Ergosum

    Perhaps ministers need a right of veto rather than a right of choice. That is so often the way in other aspects of life.

    PS A merry Yuletide to all Coffeehousers; even the ones who vote down my more irreligious comments, and even the technicians on this website who make my comments sink to the bottom of the page.

    • Dimoto

      We vetoed Junker and got Barroso. May as well have drawn lots.

  • Ostrich (occasionally)

    “Tony Blair is paying a visit to journalists in the Commons this week for a festive lunch.”

    Might there be a Casca among his audience, “Speak, hands, for me!”

    • arnoldo87

      Assassination is probably the only way to best The Master. After all, nobody has yet defeated him using logical argument.

      • Baron

        what are you talking about arnoldo87, Tony should be co-opted into the government, the Eton boy keeps fugging things up inefficiently, Tony will show him how it’s done well.

        • McRobbie

          So he would, he’ll show him how to charge into illegal wars with an eye on future speaking tours in america. Bliar could only show cameron how not to do it, dont promise education education education when you have appointed a balloon like brown as your number 2. What is it about labour that they hug backstabbers and bullies, brown, balls and of course the backstabber in chief, millie. And they call the tories the nasty party, what a joke.

  • HooksLaw

    The Civil Service acquiesced in Blair appointing the odious Campbell to be in virtual charge of the civil service. It shows how really neutral they are.

    I seem to remember the civil servants of the Dept of Business rallying round to applaud the return of the disgraced and ever reptilian Mandelson. Some neutrality.

    In similar vein the FCO were quite pleased to see the appointment of Hurd. Hurd is a nice enough chap but he was one of them.

    • Dimoto

      The Civil Service is “neutral” in the same way that the BBC is – not overtly left-wing, but with their own deeply embedded orthodoxy of control, resistance, manipulation, “approved causes”, “managing decline”, first and only loyalty to “the corps”, the ‘morality as fashion’ ratchet, etc.

      No wonder they embraced Mandelson, Hurd and Campbell as their own.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    Ministers have the mandate of the plurality of the electorate behind them. Senior Civil Servants have the mandate of the First Divisaion Association (union). It’s a no brainer. Civil Servants have no right to demand that ministers are kept out of such decisions and one can only assume that they are doing so to sustain their closed shop. Senior Civil Servants must not be allowed to dictate in such a manner.

    Of course similarly Ministers should not be able to subvert the career structure of thew civil service and impose their stooges on departments.

  • Daniel Maris

    Yeah, we’ve wrecked everything else…let’s have a go at wrecking the Civil Service. As Rhoda opines, if things aren’t getting done that’s a failure of management i.e. Ministers. The 1945 Labour government got through a huge legislative programme during a difficult period of decolonisation abroad and near bankruptcy of the country. They do so despite a lot of structural opposition both within and without the civil service.

    • Ian Walker

      Except that a big part of good management is promoting the best people to the senior positions, even when this goes against the established pecking order. My job as a manager is to develop the best team that I can to deliver the objectives that I’m set.

      • McRobbie

        Totally agree, so the blame should stop at the top. So when the civil service blow procurement of IT software, military hardware, checks on immigrants etc etc. the person at the top in the CS should be sacked. That’s what would happen in the real world… in the Civil Service the top CS passes on the blame to the ministers.. to take ministerial responsibility. The CS are not smart people, I’ve met some, they are good talkers and write lovely meaningless reports.

    • RealTory

      I think you will find that the Civil Service in 1945 were, a) less politicised and b) had seen through 5 years of a wartime coalition government. The fact is that the CS, after 13 years of labtard indoctrination, is now more left than right and certainly is obstructing government in its change agenda. It sometimes takes an exceptional manager to challenge the status quo and drive change – Gove certainly is one such – and Maude should ignore these popinjays and push ahead; how dare an entrenched bunch of unelected Mandarins tell an elected Minister what he can or cannot do?

    • William Blakes Ghost

      WHat is the purpose of the Civil Service if not to do as the elected representatives of the people direct? To read your post one would think you feel that Civil Servants have the right to subvert the will of the people?

    • Rhoda Klapp

      Can’t quibble that they got a lot done. A pity though that so much of it was wasted or misdirected effort and if they had done less we would be better off for it. Why did they keep the ration, when the previously-nazi-occupied countries of europe quickly got rid of it?

      On the subject of leadership though, a leader cannot complain when he doesn’t get the job done. Cameron shows none of the characteristics of a leader, but that does not matter. Only the record matters. If he is already lining up people to blame, he is done. Cooked. He ought to be asking himself what he wanted the job for, and whether that desire is working out for him. If he is only there now because of pride, if he has realised that the sinister forces who are to blame are unbeatable, he really ought to quit. Or do I need to seek out my arse-kicking boots?

  • Rhoda Klapp

    When the employees don’t do what they are told, it is a failure of management. Who’s in charge? Ultimately the PM. No use him moaning about it. Bloody well fix it, or get sacked by the electorate.

    • HooksLaw

      Cobblers as ever. The politicians have no control over the very people tasked with making things work.
      Some would argue that the dead hand of the civil service offers some protection from the more swivelled eyed of politician, but it strikes me the CS is far too left wing for our own good. Equally we for our part are too critical when things go wrong. Doing things involves some risk.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        The politicians have no control? Then the system is broken. Of course they have control, they need to have the backing of a good leader (I avoid the adjective strong, conjuring as it does some totalitarian despot). Civil servants can be sacked. They can be moved to the department of shame (something I suggested a while ago. It looks like a sideways move, but everybody know it is a parking place for losers, in a department with no influence or function). There are ways to control them, for a good PM. And if he can’t do it, he is no good, no matter how popular or intelligent or clever.

        • McRobbie

          What a load of tosh. A department of shame, or gardening leave in other words. The CS would be queuing up to enter that department, with expenses and holidays and a lovely pension at the end of their torment 20 years or so down the line of course. If the ministers cant appoint and discipline a CS how can they manage? Oh, of course, leadership! Have you ever tried to lead a team who are of a different persuasion when you didn’t appoint them and have no power over them? No, I know you haven’t by your simplistic views on management and leadership. Leadership is not as easy as the words written down on the page, especially when the “team” don’t want to be led, just fed.

          • Rhoda Klapp

            Leadership is not easy. I can’t do it myself. But I know it when I see it. If he is not able to do what is required, if he cannot exert any control over the team in any way, then he is no use. That’s all. Whether the circumstances are such that nobody could do it is not even relevant. HE can’t do it, and he ought to acknowledge that fact and quit, or get a grip. Moaning about it is no good. A Prime Minister who looks like he is at the mercy of events and things beyond his control is a disgrace to the nation.

            Nowm,why not reinterpret your comment to make Cameron look good, or justify him in any way.