Government should 'think twice' before overhauling departments, ex-FCO chief says

Written by Beckie Smith on 17 December 2019 in News
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“The civil service has not been the problem," Ricketts says amid reorganisation rumours

Photo: BBC Newsnight

The Conservative leadership should “think twice” before carrying out a radical overhaul of government departments, former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Peter Ricketts has warned.

“Politicians always overestimate the value of reshuffling the top of the civil service, redoing the plumbing,” Ricketts, who led the FCO between 2006 and 2010, told BBC Newsnight yesterday.

“It makes them look radical, it makes them look in charge, but if they’re interested in effective government then I think they need to think twice about that.”


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Ricketts, who also spent time as the UK’s national security adviser and ambassador to France before becoming a crossbench peer in 2016, was commenting on reports that the prime minister could abolish or merge several government departments after the UK has left the EU on 31 January.

The reorganisation could see the Home Office lose responsibility for immigration to a new standalone department; a merger of the Department for International Trade with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and the abolition of both the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Development.

“The civil service has not been the problem over the last three and a half years; I’d say it’s kept the show on the road while politicians have squabbled and argued about Brexit. And I don’t think you improve policy outcomes by reorganising the top of the government,” Ricketts said.

“No doubt there’ll be some things [politicians] want to sort out, but if they want the civil servants to be concentrating on the substance – and not worrying about the process and redefining boundaries and so on – I think they should keep reorganisation to the minimum necessary.”

The former perm sec’s warning echoed comments by trade unions, which have warned that a major overhaul could be a “distraction” from civil servants’ work.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said yesterday that “whilst the temptation from every new government is to demonstrate their reforming zeal by reorganising Whitehall, this can often be a distraction and waste both time and money as civil servants merge or split departments, rather than simply getting on with the job in hand.

'A change to the whole system'

Also appearing on the programme was Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, who hinted that there could be greater change coming for the civil service.

Wolf, a partner at the pro-fracking lobbying firm Public First, said: “We tend to get focused on… the very top of the civil service and a very small number of people and the permanent secretaries. But what’s more likely to change over the next five years is the whole system by which people are recruited, promoted, held accountable: how you consider expertise, how you put things like data science into government.

"This isn’t about the person who’s in charge, ‘If we’ve got a better person in charge everything will be different.’ It is about the way in which what the prime minister wants, gets delivered into what happens to people.”

The prime minister's chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, is understood to be planning a review of hiring and firing practices across Whitehall. Cummings has been extremely critical of the civil service HR system, which he has said “promotes people who focus on being important, not getting important things done”.

Asked whether she expected some departments to be moved outside London – in line with the Conservatives’ renewed drive to demonstrate commitment to other regions where it picked up voters in last week’s election – Wolf said: “It’s perfectly possible we’ll see some but I think what’s much more likely is that you’ll start seeing a transferral of power from central government to local areas.”

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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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