Coalition ministers open up about the "terrible" Cabinet Office, Whitehall churn – and reforming the "Rolls Royce" civil service

Written by Matt Foster on 8 December 2015 in News
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Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Andrew Mitchell, Caroline Spelman and more provide the Institute for Government with their views on their officials, the Whitehall machine, and dealing with the centre of government

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Whitehall is “coated in treacle”, the Cabinet Office is “completely dysfunctional”, and you can’t reform the “Rolls Royce” civil service “with a blunt instrument” – those are just some of the views expressed by ministers from the coalition government in a series of revealing, on-the-record interviews carried out by the Institute for Government, and published this week.

The thinktank’s new "Ministers Reflect” project aims to document life in Whitehall as seen through the eyes of several Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, including many who served at Cabinet-level. The researchers were given access to former government big-hitters including Vince Cable, Andrew Mitchell and Chris Huhne, to try and gather their views on the things the government machine does well, and where it could improve.

One of the key threads running through the archive is a respect from ex-ministers for the professionalism of the civil service. But it's often twinned with a frustration at the pace of policy implementation, and there are several calls for a rethink on the way Whitehall manages its people.


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Former environment secretary Caroline Spelman praised her “highly intelligent” team at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, adding: “we could do more to improve their lot”.

But she said she had found the civil service to be “inherently cautious and risk averse”. “Interestingly enough, the civil servants who left the civil service and went to work in the private sector because there were few promotions… I got them back and I said, ‘Well, what did you discover? What surprised you?’ And they said, ‘The speed of decision making.’”

Spelman said the civil service suffered from “very poor succession planning”, which meant key vacancies were often left “open forever”. 

She recalled: “It took us about eight months to get a new permanent secretary – well, at least six months – and that was very hard for a small department. Big departments could say, ‘Oh, we must have your permanent secretary because the security of the country is at stake’. So the smaller department has to deal with everything that’s being thrown at it […] I think the civil service needs to look at that. In business that would not be allowed. In business you couldn’t have the chief executive go and have a six-month interregnum. I mean, the stock price would go down."

That view was echoed by former trade minister Lord Green, himself a former official, who said there was “no longer any meaningful succession planning or career planning” in Whitehall. Green added: “Clearly very senior appointments get thought about and aren’t just a matter of open competition, but most of it is now just a matter of ‘The job’s here, it’s on the website, you can put your hat in the ring if you want to’. Which is a different world from most large, corporate organisations. There are some big companies that operate very similarly, but most don’t. Most have career plans and succession plans and the absence of these takes a bit of getting used to.”

Former development minister Alan Duncan said civil service performance management still left a lot to be desired. “Some of these personnel things, you come up against obstacles, because they never, ever like to sack anybody or move them or admit they are no good,” he said. “That is the main weakness of the civil service. It is total weakness that they defend their own against ministerial disapproval of performance… I always think that the permanent secretary ought to have something of the headmaster’s study about them and they don’t anymore and they need to. They are not chief operating officers for diversity, they should be at the top of their class, really.”

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat former justice minister, lamented the “big turnover” in his private office, which he said had been “really frustrating” when trying to get his team up and running. “Of the team I had at the beginning, one of them went within weeks, I mean literally weeks. I don’t think that had anything to do with me but he went within weeks! And then the guy who did the diary, he went fairly quickly somewhere else.”

Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the former business secretary (pictured) and one of the most powerful Liberal Democrats in the coalition, said officials could often be “frustratingly legalistic”.

“It wasn’t traditional Sir Humphrey-type but I was constantly being given advice that there are ‘legal risks’,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve come across this expression? If it wasn’t a financial problem, there was a ‘legal risk’. But when you actually went into it, the legal risk of being sued successfully was probably one in a thousand. But that is a legal risk. Until I got wise to this I tended to kowtow to it but eventually I realised it was just people being lazy or unadventurous or not doing their job properly. But there was civil service inertia around a lot of issues.” 

But Andrew Mitchell, the former secretary of state for international development, was keen to point out the role that ministers themselves could play in encouraging officials to be more assertive. Senior civil servants had, he said, been “a little unwilling to engage” when he was first appointed to the top DfID job.

And the former cabinet minister recalled the moment that caution had started to subside. “I had five big meetings with civil servants where I would talk to them about the changes we wanted to make in the different areas of policy. And I would ask what they thought and they would all nod and so on. And it wasn’t […] until one of my special advisers – I had two brilliant special advisers – one of them piped up in the meeting and said, ‘Actually, secretary of state you’re wrong about that’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and they explained. 

“And I then said to the civil servants, ‘They’re right. I am wrong about this.’ With that the scales fell and the civil servants started to intervene and tell me what they thought. And once that had happened we got a much better dialogue. We would have intense debates about the priorities of international development for Britain, and once we’d argued it all out, I would decide and then they’d get on with it.”

Former energy secretary Chris Huhne, one of the coalition’s first wave of Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers, said he also believed the civil service could be “much more effective at cross-departmental working” – with ministers and senior officials both needing to do more to recognise those areas where policies didn’t sit neatly along departmental lines. 

“There are simply, in the complexity of the modern world, masses and masses of objectives which inevitably straddle departments, where one department may be formally in the lead on climate change, but where vast numbers of other departments are involved,” Huhne said.

He added: “Normally departments have one often very historic guiding role in principle, and they’re not overly open to helping out other departments in meeting their particular objectives. That’s where very strong political guidance comes in.”

Cabinet Office "imposes absurd things on you"

It's also clear from the IfG's interviews that the centre of government – the combined might of the Treasury, Cabinet Office and Number 10 – got on the nerves of some ministers out in the departments.

David Willetts, the Conservative former universities minister (pictured left), is scathing in his assessment of the Cabinet Office, which he dismissed as “the worst department of government by a long margin”.

“It’s not accountable. It imposes absurd things on you. It then runs away when things don’t work out and always blames you. It is a terrible department. Over-manned, too many ministers, and a lot of time was spent essentially trying to stop the Cabinet Office messing up things we were doing.”

Willetts was also less-than-impressed by efforts to centralise Whitehall’s common functions, including the launch of the Government Digital Service to support departments in overhauling their IT systems.

He said: “There is a kind of an unspoken agenda, ‘We’ve got to enhance the role of the centre’. But they haven’t really worked out how to do that […] I mean an IT system that didn’t work in BIS which we had in about year three or four, which had been imposed because of this Cabinet Office hatred of big companies because they thought they were being ripped off by big companies. We had an absurd small company that couldn’t deliver an IT system and then it didn’t work. And I stupidly said, ‘It shows how wrong Cabinet Office is’. And the Cabinet Office is like, ‘No, that’s your decision, you’re responsible, and you have to take the blame. This is a mishandled contract’.”

Spelman said she had found it “hard to get the attention of Number 10”, leaving Defra “on our own” during the political row over the future of the Forestry Commission. And she described the Treasury as having been “very hard to deal with” – "it has all the power because it has all the money, and this was at a time when there was no money".

There was a range of views on former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s attempts to shake-up the culture of the civil service in the last parliament with an ambitious programme of reforms.

David Jones, who served as Welsh secretary from 2012-14, said he would have liked to have seen more progress on extended ministerial offices (EMOs), which were outlined by Maude as a way of giving ministers more political support and advice in their departments – but which were criticised by some as potentially politicising the impartial civil service.

“I think the structure of the civil service is something that’s clearly built up over the generations and there are very good reasons for it,” Jones said. “Francis Maude was trying to streamline things while we were there; I’m not sure he entirely succeeded. But one of the things that he came up with was having an enhanced private office and you could have more political appointments and so on. That never actually happened. I actually think that more political appointments and probably quite a good thing because, although it’s entirely right that the civil service should be apolitical, its direction is political and there you need, I think, frequently more political input than you’ve got.”

Mitchell, the former development secretary, was far from convinced of the case for EMOs, however. He told the IfG: “I take a slightly different view from a lot of my former Cabinet colleagues in that I believe the British civil service is one of the jewels in the crown in Britain. And I think that there has been a tendency for senior politicians to beat up on the civil service, and to try sometimes to politicise it.

He added: “Mr Blair was the arch villain of this. But also, the coalition government toyed with the idea of having far more political advisers and so forth. I think that is wrong. And I once said in Cabinet that I thought that hitting a Rolls Royce engine with a blunt instrument was not the right way to reform the civil service. I found them extremely engaged. I found them extremely good. And I enjoyed working in the Department for International Development, not least because the cohort of civil servants were extremely bright and extremely committed, and worked very hard and were very good at their jobs.”

About the author

Matt Foster is online editor of Civil Service World, and tweets as @CSWDepEd. The Institute for Government interviews quoted here were carried out by Jen Gold, Nicola Hughes, Catherine Haddon, Tom Gash, Peter Riddell and Hannah White. The full archive can be accessed here

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Kevin Stall (not verified)

Submitted on 9 December, 2015 - 08:05
I have been a civil servant in both the US and the UK. I found civil service in the UK a little surprising, no standard pay grades between agencies. Very poor medical retirement. In the states, medical retirement is 3/4 pay tax free until standard retirement age is reached. In UK standard retirement pay and they will bump you up to 10 years if you do not have 10 years in. Who can afford to retire on £4,000 a year. That is a 10 year retirement pay package.

William F (not verified)

Submitted on 11 December, 2015 - 14:02
Thank you Lord Green for highlighting so perfectly a huge source of frustration for me in the Civil Service. Complete lack of career planning. Nothing sums up better a career in the Civil Service better than Lord Green's words: ‘The job’s here, it’s on the website, you can put your hat in the ring if you want to’. This is honestly how career planning works. It's completely demotivating and I'm off to explore other options thank you very much. And (although I would say so wouldn't I), I am one of the ones they should be looking to keep.

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 7 September, 2016 - 15:43
The trouble with civil service reform is that no one outside of the civil service understands the causes of the problem, so in an attempt to improve, they make things worse. It is rare for anyone inside the civil service to understand the public mood, and what the public and their representatives (politicians) want from the civil service. No one knows the answer, but when someone does know the answer and speaks the truth, they can be perceived to be cut-throat and are ostracized. This is how the civil service machine is. You can't fix it if you don't understand its parts. But before someone can finish reading the proverbial manual of how the machine is supposed to work, they would have fallen asleep.

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