Dominic Cummings should face questions from MPs over civil service reform, says ex-chief

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster on 7 January 2020 in News
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Former head of the civil service warns PM’s adviser is risking 'completely unnecessary' war with Whitehall,

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Dominic Cummings should appear before select committees to set out details of his plans for a government overhaul, the former head of the civil service has said.

Lord Kerslake, who was head of the civil service between 2011 and 2014, cautioned Boris Johnson's most senior adviser against carrying out a "hubristic" overhaul of the service and warned he was risking a "completely unnecessary" war with officals.

In an article for CSW’s sister title The House, he called for MPs to be given a chance to grill Cummings amid claims No.10 is eyeing a "seismic" shake-up of the organisation's working culture.


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Cummings is a longstanding critic of the civil service who has claimed that "almost no one is ever fired" in an organisation in which "failure is normal".

He raised eyebrows in Whitehall last week when he posted a blog calling for more "weirdos and misfits" to email him directly to work in Number 10 both as special advisers "and perhaps some as officials", in a move that appeared to sidestep the civil service's conventional hiring rules.

The post came on the same day Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Johnson who helped draw up the party's election manifesto, said officials could face regular exams in a bid to end an environment "where everyone rises to their position of incompetence".

But, writing for The House, Lord Kerslake – a crossbench peer who advised Labour in the run-up to the election – warned Number 10 against "excessive self confidence" in the wake of the Conservative poll victory as he hit out at the "rather rambling" blog from Cummings.

"All of this bombast risks the government going to war with the civil service when this is completely unnecessary," he said.

"My overwhelming experience of working with civil servants is that they want to serve well the government of the day. If anything the tendency, particularly in the early years, is to stifle reservations about policy proposals rather than speak out.

"A reform programme that goes with the grain of that commitment to serve, that recognises the strengths as well as the weaknesses, that engages civil servants and gets them to lead in the process of change is far more likely be successful."

Committee grilling ‘essential’

Calling for greater scrutiny of Cummings' plans, Kerslake said the late former cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who worked with him under David Cameron, had faced "a lot of completely unfair criticism" from the media over perceptions of his "unaccountable power".

But he added: "No such concerns have so far been expressed about the growing power of Dominic Cummings. And yet his influence appears on be all pervasive, including areas like the operation of the parliamentary lobby system where his role and indeed expertise is pretty limited.

"In my experience, Jeremy completely understood the importance of power being accountable and appeared in front of a number of select committees to talk about his work. Dominic Cummings has previously been very reluctant to go in front of a select committee but an early appearance in his new role would now seem pretty essential."

The intervention from the former civil service chief comes after unions warned against plans to shake-up the organisation.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said that “it’s clear the prime minister’s aides don’t fully understand the modern realities of the civil service or, indeed, the impact of a decade of pay stagnation”, while the PCS union said it would "strenuously" oppose changes to its hire-and-fire rules.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary or Prospect, the union for over 30,000 public servants responding to the job advert posted by Dominic Cummings, said the advert was more in keeping with “how you would seek to recruit to an insurgency or sect. Perhaps that was his intention – the arch disruptor”.

'Must be up for change'

Elsewhere in his article, Kerslake said "any civil service worth its salt must be up for challenge, change and improvement".

"The UK civil service starts with a lot of strengths – the independent Blavatnik School of Government assessment puts it amongst the best. But it also has its weaknesses," he wrote.

"The three identified in Rachel Wolff’s article – an over dominance of humanities over science graduates, too high turnover and a lack of public focus – are longstanding issues with complex causes. For example, high turnover in recent times has been in good part driven by the substantial reduction in numbers and constraints on salaries which in turn led staff in high cost areas to move out. The turbulent Brexit process has also had an impact.

"There are other areas of strengthening that are as important if not more so – the ability to work effectively on cross-government issues such as climate change, the capacity to do long range planning, and the crucial need to devolve power away from Whitehall. If reform is to be on the agenda, it has to take in all the issues."

Kerslake added that there is also "a perfectly good case for recruiting additional capacity from outside No.10 to create an ‘insurgent team’ that can support the delivery of the government’s agenda", an idea Cummings has long supported. But "there is no disguising the hubristic tone and content of the blog though", the former chief said.

"Cummings talks of deep changes being needed but expects his work to be done within a year, he says people must commit to working at least years on the project as he will will have to invest time in schooling them, but he reserves the right to dismiss them at will."

Author Display Name
Matt Honeycombe-Foster
About the author

Matt Honeycombe-Foster is the news editor of CSW’s sister site PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets @matt_hfoster

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