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.


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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Show comments
  • jazz6o6

    I don’t think there is any doubt that the CS is long overdue for root and branch reform. The problem is that as things stand any proposed reform would be carried out by the CS itself.
    Catch 22 or what ?

  • Noa

    Gus O’Donnell said earlier today that senior Civil Servants like himself had a duty to ‘challenge’ and not just accept, Government & Ministers’ agendas, by pointing out the consequences of implementing them.
    I hold no brief for GoD but his argument has some merit.

    These consequences generally show that Ministers will be breaking various EU, EHCR and even UK laws, such as the Human Rights and Equality legislation.
    Ministers are not naive. They know this perfectly well and that they are, or at least this Coalition, is incapable of changing anything, least of all the EU and legislation which Cameron personally supported.
    So what we are witnessing is an admission of impotency by politicians, coupled with an excuse to appoint themselves an additional layer of scapegoats, the breed known as Spads, for posterior protection.

    • Daniel Maris

      Of course they should challenge as in “that’s a very brave proposal Minister”.

      Sensible politicians will want to hear the challenges.

      The problem though, I think, is that the Tories (Lib Dems are somewhat irrelevant in this context) didn’t really have a clear and coherent programme. They had a lot of rhetoric e.g. get rid of planning bureaucracy (we now see they are faced with the reality of what that will mean – a whole lot more bureaucracy as local authorities get dragged into neighbour disputes) or reduce net immigration below 100,000 (how are they going to do that without leaving the EU and withdrawing from the refugee treaties?).

      Compare and contrast with determined goverments like Labour in 1945 who really knew what they were doing or even MacMillan in the first post war Tory government who built 300,000 homes in one year (it sounds now like we are talking of a race of giants who could achieve such feats!).

      • Chris lancashire

        Or even with the last Labour Government which was so directionless it made a complete horlicks of the economy whilst conducting the most vicious infighting seen in politics for a long time.

  • anyfool

    The reason the Civil Service is rubbish is the top echelon are drawn from the same small circle as the leaders in the political,media and law groups come from, as most of this incestuous circle are at best incompetent what can you expect,

    This shrinking pool of talent started with the elimination of Grammar Schools and the degradation of elementary education by Labour will continue till we come full circle when only one family will control the whole country, sounds familiar.

    • telemachus

      Buit Maude is not the one to change it
      He was just now rubbished by Humphrys

  • Hexhamgeezer

    This is no watershed moment.

    Reform the CS by all means but you are still left with the European legislation it adores so much and fills so much of it’s working day.. It is highly unlikely a LibLabCon compiiant CS would stall, amend or ignore the torrent of crip coming out of Brussels

  • Russell

    The most uncivil service in the world!.

  • Chris lancashire

    I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the US model of each administration bringing in its own senior civil service – politicisation of the civil service if you like – is going to be necessary. The excellent Times investigation shows how an arrogant and isolated top level of civil servants follow their own agenda to the frustration of whichever party is in power – and the frustration of the voters who elected that party to govern.

    • 2trueblue

      I agree with you that we may have to go down that route. Blair and his government managed to politicise the the civil service and left it in a terrible state. This has made it impossible for the coalition to get any real value out of the civil service. One way of tackling it would be for those not doing their job to be named and have to answer for it. Why should we pay for a highly expensive substandard elite to interfere with democracy.

    • Daniel Maris

      There you go…I told you the Tories were destroying the civil service.

      • Chris lancashire

        There you go… the mindless, automatic assumption that what exists today is the best of all possible alternatives.