Celebrating 15 years of CSW: the more things change in Whitehall, the more they stay the same

Written by Beckie Smith on 27 February 2019 in Feature
Feature

While looking back through our archives sometimes shows how much things have changed, at other times it shows how much they’ve stayed the same. Barely an issue of this publication has gone to press without some mention of a pay dispute or procurement woes. Other thorns in the side of the civil service have simply grown bigger and more painful.

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg regretted calling civil servants “faceless bureaucrats". Photo: PA

Northern slights

When CSW interviewed Bruce Robinson in August 2008, he had only been head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service for a month, but already faced a huge challenge. The relationship between the two parties of Northern Ireland’s coalition government, Sinn Fein and the DUP, had grown so tense that the executive had not met for nearly three months. Progress on its Programme for Government had ground to a halt over disagreements about, among other things, proposed Irish language legislation.

Robinson said he was convinced there were enough areas of consensus to move the legislation forward, saying: “The first principle here is that ministers are working together and seeking to work together.”

At the time of writing, there has been no functioning executive at Stormont for more than two years, after a power-sharing agreement collapsed in January 2017.


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Relentless sniping

Last October, cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill wrote to The Times to call for an end to “sniping” against civil servants. His intervention in a national newspaper was unprecedented, but his predecessors have tackled the issue in different ways.

In July 2010, CSW reported that the cab sec of the day, Sir Gus O’Donnell, had hit out at media criticism of civil servants at Civil Service Live. “I do a lot of work with media to put the positive side of the civil service across – but the Daily Mail, curiously enough, is not interested in any article about the good news,” he complained. “We put the good news out every single chance we get, and it doesn’t make it through.”

A second report from the same event showed that criticisms from politicians are also nothing new. Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister, confessed to attendees that he felt “wretched guilt” at having called civil servants “faceless bureaucrats” in his pre-government days. When a challenger from the audience told him officials shouldn’t be vilified, Clegg said government had “no right to even ask you to do the amazing work that you do if you feel vilified, and you should kick back very hard if you feel anyone in government is vilifying you”.

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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