The Francis Maude interview: "Buy-in is great, but the civil service doesn’t have a veto on its own reform"
As Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude has overseen the biggest shake-up of the civil service in living memory – and earned a reputation as ‘a man trying to fight everyone in the pub at the same time’. It’s a description he’s proud to embrace, he tells Jess Bowie.
Most politicians are coy about their ambitions. Ask a minister or MP which Cabinet job they have their eye on and they inevitably insist they’re more than happy in their current role, and proud to serve their constituents. Even politicians with years of service under their belt can be bashful. Are they in line for a peerage? They couldn’t possibly comment – it’s not for them to decide.
Not Francis Maude. The outgoing Conservative MP for Horsham has strongly hinted what he wants for the future: to continue his tenure as minister for the Cabinet Office from the red benches of the House of Lords. More than once since declaring he was standing down as an MP at the election, the 61-year-old has told those preparing to celebrate his departure to keep the champagne on ice, because his current job “doesn’t require a seat in the Commons”.
His exit interview – or is it? – with CSW begins on a similar note. When it is put to him that he is now at the end of his time as Cabinet Office minister, Maude breezily replies: “Not necessarily.” His tone is lighthearted, but the mood of our exchange will later become more fractious as we move on to his relationship with the senior civil service, a culture of anonymous briefings and recent changes to the Civil Service Code.
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The makeup of the next government remains anybody’s guess. But it would be surprising if someone with Maude’s lengthy career in public service didn’t find themselves elevated to the upper chamber: a minister under Thatcher, he has almost 30 years’ experience as an MP (he has called his five years out of office between 1992 and 1997 his “sabbatical”).
Maude has also long been known as a moderniser – “a Cameroon before David Cameron” – and was the driving force behind his party’s “A List” of more diverse parliamentary candidates during his time as party chair. When, in 2007, Cameron appointed Maude to shadow the Cabinet Office brief, a ministerial portfolio that is traditionally seen as a stepping stone to more glamorous shores, it might have been disappointing for a Tory big beast. Yet this was the job Maude wanted – in opposition and in government after 2010. And he counts remaining in post for five years as his proudest achievement.
“No one else has stayed in this job for more than a year, I think,” he says. “There were huge numbers of occupants of the seat [under Labour] and one of the things that a lot of people in the civil service have said to me is: ‘We found a lot of what you wanted to do challenging but, actually, it’s the first time we’ve had a minister who’s been that interested, and cared about it.’
“That, I think, has been valuable. And now, we’ve worked with fantastic people in the civil service and shifted things along a lot. But there’s much more to do.”
“Shifting things along a lot” is perhaps an understatement. With all his reformer’s zeal, Maude began shaking things up as soon as his feet were under the desk. He introduced Cabinet Office spending controls just a few days after the coalition was formed, and wasted no time hauling private sector suppliers into 70 Whitehall to renegotiate contracts and get a better deal for taxpayers. Over the past five years, he has also been hell-bent on improving the civil service’s own commercial, project management and IT skills, and has made great strides in improving government technology – both for citizens who want to access public services online and for civil servants themselves.
Other changes associated with Maude’s time as Cabinet Office minister have been harder to stomach, particularly for officials. He has overseen pay freezes, changes to terms, conditions and pensions and a whopping 17% reduction in civil service headcount since 2010. While many of his achievements – not least the sense of urgency he brought to Whitehall reform in a period of financial crisis – have won him plaudits, Maude’s methods have often been controversial. His approach has “varied from a bull in a china shop, to acting like a man trying to fight everyone in the pub at the same time”.
“I was very flattered by that – huge compliment,” Maude laughs when reminded of this characterisation, made last year by Labour’s Michael Dugher during his stint as shadow Cabinet Office minister.
“I think Michael Dugher’s point was that he was trying to find something that wasn’t complimentary to say about me,” he adds. “Because everything he said was: ‘Actually I would agree with everything Francis is doing, we will do it, and probably more, if we are elected.’
“So I think one of the things that has slightly changed the whole dynamic [of civil service reform] is the sense that this isn’t just one eccentric minister, this is a very kind of across-the-piece, consensus view in the political world, that there needs to be change – and of this kind.”
Maude is right – in so far as Labour has any plans for the civil service, it has shown no sign of wanting to deviate from any of the coalition’s major reforms if it forms the next government. Instead, much of the party’s criticism of Maude’s time in office has focused on his tone. Labour peer Lord Falconer, in a recent interview with CSW, even went so far as to say that ministers in this government had got their relationship with civil servants “dramatically wrong”, and that there was a sense in Whitehall that the coalition “and more particularly the Conservative ministers” were “against the civil service”.
While Falconer’s comments can partly be read as political mud-slinging, they will nevertheless ring true for many senior civil servants. Inside and outside Whitehall, the perception endures that, instead of trying to bring people with him while delivering change, Maude has – for all his passion for those who commit their lives to public service – been unnecessarily abrasive. In 2012, for instance, union reps were outraged when Maude accused permanent secretaries of “blocking” agreed government policy in a speech at the Institute for Government. Such cases were the exception, the minister added, but they undermined “the sterling work of the majority of civil servants".
The FDA’s Dave Penman said that by “publicly berating permanent secretaries in this way, the government risks damaging the key relationships between ministers and their most senior officials”. It did precisely that, demoralising swathes of the senior ranks, who felt as if they were being thanked in private and criticised in public – and had no right of reply.
Asked today if he still experiences that sense of frustration – of putting his hands on the levers and feeling like nothing is happening – Maude refers to David Cameron’s recent remarks about “the buggeration factor” involved in trying to push policy through Whitehall. “And this needs to be better,” he says. “We need to be better at following up... we’re not very good at monitoring whether things are happening.”
Does he mean ministers?
“Well, not ministers. Ministers shouldn’t have to do that. I can’t possibly personally follow up on it. It’s ridiculous. But in most organisations, if the person in charge has made a decision, then it’s pretty extraordinary if it doesn’t happen. I have heard one group of people say of a decision made by a Cabinet committee – which is equivalent to the Cabinet deciding, it’s not just some committee – ‘well, we didn’t think it was a very strong mandate’. It was outrageous.”
While he is unwilling to name an instance where this has occurred (“No, it’s invidious to do that”) the minister maintains it still happens, and even calls for a change in the system to ensure ministerial decisions cannot be misconstrued.
“One of the things we have to do in the future is have collective decisions framed in a much more hard-edged way, so that there is a decision properly formulated and then promulgated with proper executive force. The president in America issues executive orders; they then have legal force. I mean, people have to do it. In France, when there’s a government decision made, they issue something called a papier bleu – and it’s The Decision. And that is kind of holy writ.
“We don’t do that. We have recommendations in a Cabinet committee and the chairman sums it up. I think we need to do this very differently in future, with much more organised, and methodological, systematic follow-up.”
How would Maude characterise his relationship with the senior civil service over the past five years?
“Steadily improving, actually, I would say. I mean, a bit of a honeymoon period at the beginning. A bit of a down period in the middle, where some things didn’t go right. But as I say, in recent months, lots of warmth, lots of senior people saying: ‘I’ve found the civil service has benefited from a senior minister taking a really deep interest with some insight.’ And it hasn’t always been welcome, but actually the fact that there has been this consistency of approach... I recently found some papers I wrote at the very outset, and we have been extraordinarily consistent. [But] we’ve learned a lot; it isn’t as though there was a fixed view then that hasn’t changed.”
Even to the most part-time Whitehall-watcher, the reference to “a bit of a down period” in relations must seem euphemistic. How does Maude respond to the accusation that his style has been alienating?
“I mean, I’m all for buy-in,” he says, before adding: “I think one of the mistakes I made probably is not engaging enough directly with senior civil servants. I like doing it, and when I do it, people respond to it. I get a very warm reception, people get that I care about it, that I’m very genuine about it, I’m not playing games. I care about it working. You know, buy-in is great, but at the end of it, the civil service doesn’t have a veto on its own reform, and nor do its leaders.”
He mentions the Top 200, a group of Whitehall’s 200 most senior figures which meets to discuss cross-cutting issues. He points out that he wasn’t initially invited to these meetings, but then he started attending periodically, then regularly. He says that many attendees would quietly approach him afterwards and thank him for his efforts on the reform agenda.
The interview has moved on to more comfortable territory, but two thorny topics remain unbroached. One of these is the huge damage done to civil service morale over the past five years by anonymous briefings against named officials that have found their way into the press.
“Not from me, or my team,” Maude says crisply.
How does he think those briefings happened?
“Well, there have been a tiny number of them. People quite often get confused. There are quite a lot of stories written about the civil service and commentators commenting about the civil service... there’s a sort of naive view in some quarters that that must have been stimulated by us.
“Quite a lot of journalists have views about the civil service. And they write stories, and they pick stuff up around the place, they’re quite well connected. And the fact that people write critical things… I don’t go spare when I read something about me which has plainly been briefed by a senior civil servant. And there have been quite a lot of those.”
So it’s worked both ways?
“No, it hasn’t worked both ways,” Maude says, his frustration palpable. “There’s been quite a lot of quite malicious briefing against me and my team.”
When asked if the briefings have, then, been exclusively one-sided – senior civil servant against minister – he replies: “We do not brief against civil servants. People shouldn’t go around briefing. Civil servants shouldn’t brief against ministers; ministers certainly shouldn’t brief against civil servants.”
Warming to his theme, Maude refers to remarks made by Bob (now Lord) Kerslake – whose time as head of the civil service, which ended last autumn, was dogged by backstairs briefings.
“Bob, when he left, commented about ‘noises off’. Well, as I said, that can’t have been about me because I’ve made my noises on: I’ve been very open about what my concerns are. I have often made the point that if I say nine positive things about the civil service, and one mildly critical thing, the only thing to get reported will be the mildly critical thing, which will get written up as a savage attack. But that’s just part of life, and you live with that.”
A consistent champion of open data, Maude has said on many occasions over the past five years that “transparency is an idea whose time has come” – that it creates real-time accountability and forces those in government out of their comfort zone. His focus on this agenda has earned him praise from many quarters and, in February, he spoke of his pride after the World Wide Web Foundation ranked the UK government as the most transparent in the world.
In light of this, the recent Cabinet Office decision to tighten the civil service code, so that civil servants must now seek ministerial authorisation before talking to the media, feels to some like a retrograde step on transparency.
“It isn’t at all,” Maude says. “All it does it clarify what has always been the case, which is that civil servants shouldn’t be speaking to the media without authorisation.”
But if that’s the case, why do so many people see it not as a clarification but as something new?
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s very clear in the management code.”
Asked about the timing of the change – which appeared to onlookers to have been hurried out in the final few days before parliament was dissolved – Maude says it was actually agreed some time ago, but that “often these things take quite a long time to work through the system.”
Some have suggested that the change is intended to stop permanent secretaries, and maybe even the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, from speaking to the media. Is there any truth to that?
“Well, no civil servant should be speaking to the media without authorisation,” Maude says, leaning forward. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have it both that civil servants aren’t going to be accountable directly to parliament, because that’s what ministers do, and then civil servants feeling they’re free to talk to the media whenever they like – it’s not okay. It’s either one thing or the other, so frankly whether it’s the most senior or the most junior person in the civil service, they shouldn’t be talking to media without authorisation.”
In just over a week, Francis Maude could be out of a job. Or he could be hanging his lordly ermine in the wardrobe, rolling up his sleeves, and preparing for five more years as minister for the Cabinet Office. During our interview, the man whose name has become synonymous with civil service reform says people often ask him when reform will end. “Never – it’s always a work in progress,” is his answer.
While Labour have said they will stick to the spirit of the coalition’s Whitehall reforms, the party cannot boast anyone who has made the agenda their own in the way Francis Maude has. Perhaps in order to upset the status quo, and tell people what they didn’t want to hear, this minister felt he had to sometimes play the bad guy. Does he think he could have achieved the same amount by getting civil servants onside with a more softly-softly approach?
“We’ve done huge amounts of that, huge amounts of that. I get a bit irritated by this, because some of the strongest supporters of what we’re doing are in the highest echelons of the civil service. But some of them are a bit out of touch with their own rank and file and don’t see the frustration that their own staff have. And it’s not frustration with me, it’s frustration with the way the system works – its slowness, its bureaucracy, and so on. And you know, I don’t think a minister who’s deliberately chosen to stay in post for five years can be accused of undue impatience,” Maude says.
“You know, I am impatient, and we have achieved a lot, but there is a huge amount we haven’t achieved. Could we have achieved more by being nicer? Well I just don’t get that. At all. You know, at the end of it, ministers have to make decisions, and you want to get as much consensus as you can, and we do a lot – we do huge amounts of that – but at the end of it, there’s just me.”
Wednesday Morning Colleagues meetings
[When asked if Michael Gove’s appearance at these weekly perm sec meetings was a sign of mistrust between ministers and perm secs] “I don’t think so particularly. Michael’s view was that, as the chief whip, he has a huge interest in representing ministers and, you know, knowing what the issues are in terms of implementation, execution of government policy. And so he took the view that it would be very useful for him to be there. I mean, these are meetings which… I never see any notes from those meetings, I never see an agenda. I probably go to them once a year or so. And there’s no reason why ministers shouldn’t attend them or maybe the prime minister’s chief of staff, someone like that. I think David Miliband when he was head of Blair’s Policy Unit suggested he should attend, and there was great resistance…It’s quite hard to understand why there should be such resistance to it.”
Launching just 15 of the 25 digital exemplar services promised by March 2015
“Well, some of them took longer, some of them took less time. The point about doing the development in agile ways is it’s very difficult to put a hard deadline on it. In fact a lot of the biggest mistakes in IT have come about because artificial deadlines have been set, so things get launched before they’re ready. And the way we do things now is there’s never a big bang. So very large numbers of them are either live or in public beta where the public are using them in real time, for real transactions. And we’re doing something which is world-leading. There’s no textbook on this.”
Civil service bosses “gaming” the current performance management system
“I think it has improved, but we’re nowhere near right. What you should probably do is move to a forced ranking, so not just a forced distribution. So you actually say: 'What order are people?' And then you avoid some of the gaming.”
“She moved in next door to us quite some time ago, and then, when we were moving, she and her husband bought our house. She was very easy to deal with when we were selling the house. We’re still in contact – there are always things to clear up, queries they have about this and that in the house… [On whether he moved because of Katie Price] No, complete rubbish.”
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