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Coffee House

The Whitehall watershed moment

15 January 2013

4:55 PM

15 January 2013

4:55 PM

Those pushing for reform of the civil service have been heartened still further today by the number of interventions from politicians of other parties on the need for change. Yesterday they saw Tony Blair’s quotes in the Times about the problems with the service as a game-changer, and they are also pleased that former Labour ministers John Healey and Digby Jones have criticised the Whitehall machine.

So why is this a watershed moment? Whitehall sources feel these quotes from opposition politicians show that there is now a unique situation where all three parties are either in government or have recently left government. These fresh memories of dealing with the civil service now means there is a cross-party consensus that change is needed.

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The problem is, as the Times anecdotes about civil servants presenting ministers with significantly watered-down versions of their plans for reform show, a political watershed moment won’t make life so much easier that the reforms glide their way through Whitehall.

One thing that’s also worth noting is that while Michael Gove is held up as the thick-skinned example of how to reform a department, he has succeeded partly by creating a superstructure of staff that in effect operates above the civil service. He has been given permission to bring in additional advisers, and has used his own political coterie to push his education reforms through. This shows quite how difficult it is to create a responsive civil service.

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