Yes, Sir Humphrey must be tamed. But I fear No 10’s hostile approach may yet backfire

Published by The Daily Mail (25th February, 2020)

Early skirmishes have erupted into open warfare bet-ween the Government and the army of civil servants resisting a Whitehall shake-up.

Over the weekend, reports emerged that Boris Johnson wants to replace senior mandarins seen as ‘offside’ on Brexit, while Tory sources were said to be wielding a ‘shit-list’ of senior civil servants whom No 10 would like removed.

Meanwhile, hostile briefings against Home Secretary Priti Patel highlight the antagonism allegedly felt by some towards her in the Home Office.

The situation has become so febrile that Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, yesterday took the highly unusual step of publicly demanding a return to ‘private’ conversations between ministers, special advisers and civil servants.

Behind all these events lies the shadow of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s abrasive strategist, who made it clear after helping to deliver the Tories a resounding election victory that he had Whitehall in his sights.

There is nothing new in politicians and key aides feeling frustrated at their inability to achieve instant change when they gain the levers of power. Nor is there anything new in them blaming civil servants.

Tony Blair, frustrated by slow public-service reform, set up his own Delivery Unit at No 10 to accelerate change. Steve Hilton, who helped David Cameron win power as his director of strategy, flounced from government after his ideas were largely ignored by civil servants.

Cummings should learn from them. He is a brilliant campaigner, but he needs to be less aggressive, less arrogant and less self-serving if he wants to survive, let alone thrive. Politics is a consensual process and fear of challenge shows only weakness. A confident reformer embraces scrutiny, rather than shrinking from it.

Yet, his methods aside, I share Cummings’s concerns.

Whitehall’s smooth ranks of Sir Humphreys have developed well-honed skills at strangling any challenges to their hegemony, like Japanese knotweed frustrating a gardener. And the result of persistent state failures in areas from foreign aid to social care is that voters have been left feeling no one listens to them.

Meanwhile, it can take decades to get substantial new housing schemes under way, or force major infrastructure projects through the system. Just look at HS2.

So what needs to be done?

For a start, ministers must be appointed for their management skills. Johnson has a big majority while Labour remains in disarray. He should appoint people on ability to deliver reform, not to satisfy egos.

Patel, for instance, was hopeless when overseeing aid at the Department for International Development. She talked tough but failed to stem waste — then was sacked for holding unofficial talks with a foreign government. Yet she has been promoted to one of the biggest jobs as Home Secretary.

Ideally the Cabinet would comprise fewer ministers, who will serve for the entire term and be set clear aims.

There is also no doubt bureaucracy, an ignorance of data, ‘groupthink’ and casual ignorance of evidence both in Westminster and Whitehall.

Voters are rightly wary of government waste. But politicians need strong support — and this means ministers having enough aides to drive through their policies along with freedom to bring in outsiders unafraid to fight soggy consensus.

This has political consequences, so these people need experience that serves the cause of government — not simply to be juvenile poseurs espousing distasteful and superficial ideas such as Andrew Sabisky, the adviser who quit after a furore last week.

When it comes to Whitehall, we have much to be thankful for, not least its dedication and lack of corruption. But it is also hierarchical, inflexible and suffers from herd mentality.

One problem is that civil servants generally have jobs for life. Those who fail tend to get shifted sideways, while talented staff can be held back by time-servers with eyes fixed on a well-padded pension.

The Service recruits too narrowly, prizes shallow generalists over those with deep knowledge and has been infected by the corrosive bonus culture. Why on earth should public servants get an extra bung just for doing their job?

Governments must also adopt a safety-first approach. Every incoming administration vows to take the long-term view — but as political capital dribbles away, each becomes a slave to the ‘news grid’ of daily announcements.

This is designed to dominate the political agenda. Instead it fuels a damaging spin culture and leads to poor policy: witness Blair’s fixation with criminal justice stunts, with a new offence law per day in office.

Politics is a clash of ideologies — yet no party has a monopoly on good ideas. British politicians of different parties could work together to save our High Streets, build more houses, salvage the care system, cut prisoner recidivism and confront rising costs in the health service.

Sadly the state instinctively calcifies by simply adding layers of bureaucracy. Politicians pledge to fix problems, then outsource them as a defensive device to quangos, charities and ‘independent’ reviews. Why not simply declare a few bold key aims and set up specialist bodies to solve them?

Around the world, bureaucrats are being dispersed from capitals as technology transforms work. Norway sent officials from Oslo to a town near the North Pole, while South Korea shifted two-thirds of state agencies from Seoul.

Britain should follow suit —and not just with the Treasury moving to Teesside, as has been recently indicated.

It would be cheaper and foster government with better understanding of the whole UK’s needs if the service were more widely dispersed. Decisions should be devolved as close as possible to those affected to restore faith and encourage innovation.

There is much more to be done.

State procurement is often a cesspit of waste with mind-boggling sums spent on crazy projects. Billions blown on computer systems that fail to function, buildings left empty, weapons that do not work. But no-one ever carries the can.

Naive politicians must stop pandering to top brass and falling for the sales patter of lobbyists — then introduce genuine accountability for all spending decisions.

Sadly, as former Tory cabinet minister Rory Stewart says, we have a political system in which no-one takes responsibility.

Give parliamentary select committees more staff to sift evidence, plus statutory powers to force witnesses to attend. Let us finally kick the last hereditary peers out of the Lords, which is a demeaning hangover of our feudal past.

Daft targets must also be ditched. These are useful tools if used judiciously for accountability and transparency.

But they can impact on services, as seen with the relentless focus on hospital waiting lists that sparked problems in delivery elsewhere in the NHS.

At worst, targets distort policy — seen most egregiously with the ridiculous aid target (a commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income), which encourages the frittering away of cash based on spending rather than need.

This shows how the bureaucratic machine, once cranked into action, can end up focusing on a target — funding absurd projects and feeding fat cats — rather than the original aim, in this case of fighting poverty. It symbolises what is wrong in Whitehall.

Governments and their civil servants are meant to serve the people, not themselves. It is time to take back control of our own state.

Cummings understands this — but he may find that his brash, controlling and disruptive methods backfire well before they achieve his aims.

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