Bernard Jenkin: ex-civil service chiefs should stop “rocking the boat” on Brexit

Written by Matt Foster on 9 January 2017 in News

Exclusive: Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman says Brexiteers' calls for a clear-out of the civil service are "complete rubbish" — but attacks interventions of former permanent secretaries in wake of EU ambassador's resignation

Former permanent secretaries going public with their views on Brexit are “doing their serving colleagues a disservice”, prominent Tory Leave campaigner and select committee chairman Bernard Jenkin has told CSW, as he praised the "discipline" shown by the current crop of Whitehall chiefs.

The resignation or Sir Ivan Rogers as the UK’s ambassador to the European Union last week — with a plea to colleagues to keep challenging “muddled thinking” and “speak truth to power” — triggered a bitter war of words over the impartiality of the civil service, with key Brexit campaigners calling for a purge of officials sympathetic to the EU.

Many ex-civil service chiefs subsequently spoke out in defence of Rogers and the wider civil service, with some making clear their own doubts about the government’s Brexit plans.

Sir Ivan Rogers quits as UK's Brussels ambassador as ex-Treasury chief warns of "destruction of EU expertise"
Union slams “deafening silence” of ministers as civil service attacked over Ivan Rogers resignation
Some in Brexit camp believe civil servants are “morons” — Tory MP Bernard Jenkin

Former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson claimed the departure of Rogers was part of the government’s "wilful and total destruction of EU expertise”, while Lord Kerslake, the ex-head of the civil service, accused ministers of failing to draw up “a delivery plan, negotiating strategy or clear understanding of the resources required to achieve a successful Brexit”.

But Jenkin, who serves as chairman of parliament’s public administration and constitutional affairs committee, said the interventions of ex-officials risked playing into the hands of Whitehall’s fiercest critics, some of whom would like to see a politically-appointed civil service.

“They give the impression that they have political views about these matters" - PACAC chairman Bernard Jenkin

“At the very highest level our system has very great advantages in providing continuity of knowledge and corporate memory as policies change,” he told CSW. “But it’s clear that civil servants must avoid becoming beholden to an institutional view.

“And, to be fair, it is only retired civil servants — apart from Sir Ivan — who have been rocking the boat in public. They have been doing their serving colleagues a disservice.”

He added: “They give the impression that they have political views about these matters. And I think if there is a lesson from the whole referendum period, it’s that governments should not use their civil servants to project their political views and their political arguments, as David Cameron and George Osborne did during the referendum.”

Jenkin, who chaired the official Vote Leave campaign, said former officials appeared to have become increasingly vocal in the wake of the Brexit vote, arguing that “there was a time when even retired civil servants would regard it as their obligation to their successors and to the institution to remain discreet about their own views”.

“I have not heard, for example, [former cabinet secretary] Robin Butler or [former Bank of England governor] Mervyn King saying whether they were for or against leaving the European Union — and that’s the way it should be,” he added.

“There appears to be discipline and an understanding of the proper role of serving civil servants amongst the senior civil service" - Jenkin

Jenkin, whose recent Financial Times article has been interpreted by some as an attack on the civil service, stressed that he was not accusing “any serving permanent secretaries or officials” of seeking to undermine the government’s position.

And he reiterated his view that any moves toward a politically-appointed civil service, as some Eurospectics have called for, would be counter-productive.

“There appears to be discipline and an understanding of the proper role of serving civil servants amongst the senior civil service,” he said. “The idea that we need a clear out is complete rubbish.”

In recent days, ministers themselves have been accused of failing to defend the impartiality of the civil service, with the head of the FDA union for senior officials saying there had been a “deafening silence” from Downing Street following the eurosceptic attacks on Whitehall. Labour meanwhile accused politicians of showing “complete cowardice” by criticising officials who are contractually barred from answering back.

But Jenkin told CSW he did not believe the absence of any supportive public statements from ministers meant former civil servants needed to step up to defend their ex-colleagues.

“The silence of officials always speaks more loudly than anything they could say,” he argued.

“And actually I think the prime minister’s action, replacing Sir Ivan with another career diplomat [Sir Tim Barrow], speaks far more loudly in defence of a permanent and impartial civil service, and to the independence of both the diplomatic and the home civil service, than the pleadings of one or two former permanent secretaries.”

About the author

Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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Norman Strauss (not verified)

Submitted on 10 January, 2017 - 19:00
A rethink or reboot of our governing system is urgently needed. This demands a radically redesigned and innovative task force that can cope with eco-systemic complexity and adaptability, so as to be fitter for our times. Without such major change to our Modus Operandi, it is hard to see how a good Brexit outcome can come to pass. The relevance of 'presumed' meritocratic past experience of senior civil servants - in the context of neutrality, objectivity and impartiality - for creating new progressive eco-systemic vision, together with its related need for suitably upgraded managers, administrators, organisation designs, structures, policies and meta-systems leaders is not an arcane topic. It is exactly what the civil service should be for in modern times; as political parties cannot often do - and normally do not do - such complex work. These constructs are germane to our future progress, spirit, ethos, governing system, marketable innovations, rate of growth, speed of decline and livelihood. A taxonomy of different 'experience archetypes' and their contextual relevance, would help to gauge their suitability as times change and seismic shifts destroy the status quo ante. It is the kind of work an objective, self-adapting, progressive and learned civil service should do automatically, without having to be asked... In other words it is proactvie and emergent, not reactive and bureaucratic. However, there is always a critical mismatch with future needs, whenever experience is complacent, static and didactic; especially when the situation is dynamic, turbulent and uncertain. The structure, processes and multitude of Brexit elements self-evidently have still to be shaped and agreed by pluralist forces and must incorporate some likely un-recognised unknowns and knowns, which will prove to be of strategic importance. They need to be unearthed by civil servants and brought to the negotiating table in phases, as appropriate topics unfold. Such systemic detail cannot best be discovered by ministers or departments working alone or playing power or territory games, let alone be aligned as a coherent and interdependent, multi-pronged, negotiating ecosystem that is able both to define and achieve key competitive objectives. Our success as a nation depends upon a variety of critical actors being open to the diversity, creativity, psychology, knowledge, competences, specialities and disparate experiences of others. Such key actors must possess cognitive flexibility, behavioural adapability, era capability and professional humility. They need to be agreeable, self-confident, self-correcting, self-adapting and conscientious enough to learn from a pluralist variety of 'unlike others', rather than only imposing their own points of view and self-presumed, hard-wired, home-grown, self-fixated expertise. Whenever governing policy or circumstances disrupt the present, the usefulness of past experience - which needs precise systemic definition for the effective identification and deployment of its component factors in the future; i.e. complex dynamic (eco-)systemic application - moves from relevant, to contributing, to irrelevant, to harmful, to toxic. This applies to administrators, negotiators, cabinet ministers, MP's and chairmen of select committees like Mr.Jenkins, who believe that they can judge the relevance of tomorrow's pre-relevant talents, outlier ideas, paradigm shifts and barely discernible expertise, let alone the emergence of black swans, by serial interviews aiming to create recommendations that improve the deployment of present approaches. An enhanced governing system, that both embraces future ecosystemic complexities and embeds pluralist bandwidths, is not being adequately captured by present practices. In short, in spite of - or perhaps more accurately because of - Mr Jenkins' vast experience, he too has alas got it wrong.

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