The civil service: a monster in Whitehall

Published in The Guardian (July 16th, 2013)

Britain has a bad habit of deluding itself over its institutions. We proclaim the National Health Service to be the envy of the planet, until scandals over inadequate patient care reveal the carnage caused by such corrosive complacency. We boast our bobbies are the best in the world, then are shocked to discover reprehensible behaviour involving cover-ups, collusion and rank criminality.

So it is with the civil service, seen as such a well-oiled machine it is often compared with a purring Rolls-Royce. The warm image of Whitehall is of a place filled with the finest minds, who smoothly run the nation in the most impartial manner while preventing politicians from carrying out crazy schemes. When its chief was asked recently what was its primary role, he replied to challenge ministers.

The truth is rather different. Challenge by all means – but the job of civil servants is not to throttle policies, stifle innovation and ensure the nation lies preserved in a form of idealised aspic cooked up in their clubs. Nor is it to play departmental games that waste time and money. It is to push through the programme of an elected government, while ensuring public services are delivered in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

The coalition is the latest government to discover the civil service can be a frustrating creature for its supposed masters. A cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher said it was “the ultimate monster” to prevent change – a conclusion with which successors of varying political hues would concur. A coalition minister even had to ask a backbencher to table parliamentary questions to elucidate answers blocked by his own staff; others complain about low-calibre staff, bovine attitudes and institutional resistance.

This is why the knives are out for Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, over his failure to modernise a system in which mandarins stymie plans and rebuff their political bosses. Meanwhile, mind-boggling sums have been blown on the NHS computer, defence procurement debacles and the west coast mainline franchise farce.

The problems lie with a machine still operating on the lines of its creation a century ago, with a culture of departmental fiefdoms, of anonymity in advice and neutrality in officials. This looks increasingly archaic in a digital age in which government is being slimmed down fast while responsibilities keep rising. Why, for instance, do they still need all those red boxes? Paperwork piles up as proposals are printed off and sent round the country in cars rather than by email; iPads are banned on dubious security grounds; and a clunky internal computer system symbolises Whitehall’s inefficiency.

Politicians, of course, are not immune from blame, often rushing to pursue poorly worked policies, bad managers and targeting officials when in trouble. But we have a bureaucratic morass in which people who have never run anything are put in charge of huge departments staffed with generalists, which then tussle over budgets and policies. Ministers are accountable for everything, while civil servants are rarely held responsible, and some get bonuses for doing their jobs.

One of the coalition’s biggest mistakes upon taking office was to limit the number of political advisers. The former police minister Nick Herbert says he had more support in opposition than in the Home Office, driving through policies; he has now launched a research project into improving the civil service with John Healey, a former Labour minister.

All the main parties back timid plans unveiled this month to create bigger political offices and fixed-term tenures for permanent secretaries. This should be just the start. We can see the party system crumbling with the evolution of more independent-minded politicians, more powerful parliamentary committees and a more embattled executive. To make this work and improve the operation of government, we should worry less about politicisation of the civil service (as much a red herring as the word “privatisation” in health): it was, after all, possibly at its most effective during the second world war, when there were no hang-ups about bringing in the best outsiders to drive success.

A more fluid civil service should be accompanied by greater accountability and openness – not just in data, where the coalition has made progress, but in advice, deal-making and discussions. There must be more open-source development of policy involving outsiders, and increased transparency within Whitehall to ensure innovation and better delivery – and to stop the same corporate behemoths with often lamentable track records scooping up all the contracts. Like it or not, commissioning of private firms, charities and consultancies is a critical part of modern government, but must be as open as possible.

Just as with the NHS, recognition that the machine is antiquated does not amount to an attack on those slaving away to keep it functioning. The cabinet secretary says one in 10 civil servants are not up to the job; that is probably true, but many more are frustrated by a dysfunctional system and lack of strategic direction. Just as we need to restore public trust in politics, so we need to ensure the civil service is fit for purpose in a fast-changing world.

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