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Whitehall needs reform – and the Prime Minister needs to lead it

11 December 2013

1:41 PM

11 December 2013

1:41 PM

James Forsyth is right. Whitehall does need reforming. But he is wrong to present this in stark terms of ministers versus mandarins. The real position is more complicated, and not nearly as negative.

First, the positives. The Civil Service has delivered an unprecedented scale of cuts in the spending reviews, and in staff numbers with reductions of a quarter to a third in administrative costs in many departments. Francis Maude has pushed through big savings in procurement and, though we remain concerned about the pace of reform in public service markets, he has initiated welcome changes in the handling of big projects and commissioning. He is also working to achieve greater transparency and increased use of digital transactions with government. Mr Maude is very unusual in being a Cabinet Office minister who cares about reform—and contrary to the Forsyth view, many, if not most, senior civil servants agree about where he wants to go, even if they sometimes question his style.

Yet James Forsyth is right that something is wrong in Whitehall at present, but it is not all powerful mandarins frightening ministers, rather the reverse. As the Institute for Government’s latest report on ‘Accountability at the Top’ shows, many permanent secretaries are nervous, bruised and worried about their tenure, hardly surprisingly since a number have been forced out because of tensions with ministers. Since 2010, no permanent secretary has sought a formal direction from a Secretary of State about a spending programme despite numerous problems identified by the Major Projects Authority. Many officials are reluctant to question ministers.

Ministers are frustrated that senior officials are not taking responsibility for failures, and permanent secretaries complain about not being given sufficient room to run their departments. Officials have made a number of big, costly errors, from the West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco to the handling of a number of outsourcing contracts, and, most recently, over universal credit. In many cases, while officials have been at fault, ministers have also had a responsibility for devising the original policies. The result has been a prickly, blame mood which has undermined trust.

The whole system of accountability is muddled and opaque, serving neither ministers nor permanent secretaries. There is no real responsibility for consequences. The objectives for permanent secretaries for 2013/14—that is for the financial year that began nearly eight months ago—are still unpublished, thanks to a lack of urgency among civil service and political leaders. Last year’s objectives, also published just before Christmas, were so long and vague as to be meaningless. This matters because the objectives are the starting point for assessing performance. Ministers have a role here in setting clearer priorities to hold their officials to account but also to support the permanent secretary in their duty to challenge on grounds of feasibility and value for money and to prepare the department for longer-term challenges.

Whitehall reform, and government, will only work if both ministers and senior civil servants are working alongside each other with greater clarity about each others’ roles. It is not a question of no change now as opposed to change in the future. Change is happening. The real question is how it can be achieved more harmoniously and effectively. Further reform is vital since the structures and ways of working—both of ministers and civil servants— will have to change substantially in the next parliament to take account of further spending reductions. Most civil servants accept that and are already thinking about options.

As James Forsyth says, the Prime Minister himself has shown little interest apart from occasional remarks when questioned by the Commons’ Liaison Committee. His absence has fuelled the squabbling and leaks. He needs to take a lead to ensure that all the main players are working in the same direction.

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