Michael Gove dismissed as "bitter" after he blasts "bottom-covering" Senior Civil Service

Written by Matt Foster on 25 November 2016 in News

Former education secretary calls for weekly naming and shaming of civil servants working on big projects, but union for senior officials says his intervention is "more about resurrecting his career as a columnist"

Michael Gove has been dismissed as a "bitter politician" trying to reclaim his "moment in the sun", after he accused the Senior Civil Service of “blame-shifting and bottom-covering”, and urged greater scrutiny of top officials.

Writing in The Times, the former education and justice secretary called for a new system of accountability for the most senior civil servants, and hit out at the Ministry of Defence over recent engine problems in its fleet of Type 45 warships.

“The inability of our destroyers to match the seaworthiness of a Swan Hellenic cruise liner was a consequence of the Ministry of Defence failing to test the ships ‘sufficiently long enough to demonstrate that the engine was reliable’,” he wrote.

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“The bureaucrats at the MoD appear to have accomplished something that neither Napoleon nor Hitler ever managed — they’ve effectively disabled the navy.”

Gove said the MoD “fiasco” was just the latest in a string of government projects to have gone awry, pointing to the NHS’s now-abandoned national IT programme; the 2014 scandal which saw the Ministry of Justice overcharged for offender tagging by two private suppliers; and money “squandered” on David Cameron’s flagship Troubled Families programme, whose impact was questioned by a recent official assessment.

The former education secretary welcomed the Treasury’s decision this week to scrap annual Autumn Statements, but instead called for a rolling programme of updates on big government projects, which would be used to determine the career prospects of top officials.

“In its place I’d like to see not half-yearly but weekly statements — reporting results in the real world rather than promises for the future — updating us on how effective all the public spending that’s already been announced has actually been,” he said.

“And alongside these updates I’d like to see the names of civil servants responsible for these programmes published, their explanations for failure (or success) recorded and those who’ve failed be removed while those who can demonstrate clear, measurable, success get promoted.”

“I'm not sure anyone really listens to the man who said we've had enough of experts" - Dave Penman, FDA union

But the system of accountability proposed by Gove would come on top of several civil service performance measures already introduced in Whitehall in recent years, many at the instigation of Conservative ministers.

Under rules introduced in the last parliament, top officials known as "Senior Responsible Owners" are now directly accountable to parliament for the delivery of their projects, and the independent Infrastructure and Projects Authority rates whether big schemes are on track.

A staff performance management system which sees managers assign ratings to all their staff is also in place, and there is an ongoing overhaul of the government's commercial capability in direct response to the MoJ tagging scandal.

The attack on the Senior Civil Service by Gove – who left government earlier this year after failing to win the Conservative leadership – has already triggered a furious response from Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union for top officials.

"Many brilliant civil servants left in exasperation at the complacency, blame-shifting and bottom-covering among too many of their superiors who duck responsibility when crisis after crisis occurs" - Michael Gove

Penman told CSW it was "disappointing to see a bitter politician pour their bile on the public servants that once served them well, in an attempt to reclaim their moment in the sun".

He added: “I'm not sure anyone really listens to the man who said we've had enough of experts, but as he knows, civil servants in charge of major projects are accountable to their minister and the Public Accounts Committee for their success or failure, under the ever-watchful gaze of the National Audit Office.

“Those same civil servants continue to deliver ever more with ever less, as the government he was a member of slashed their resources by 20% in the last parliament and then by the same margin again in this one. Those are the same civil servants who now have to deliver Brexit, the biggest administrative and legislative challenge in peacetime history, with little or no extra resource.

“Paying lip service to successes whilst simultaneously blaming officials - even for the failings of ministers - demonstrates that this article is more about resurrecting his career as a columnist than any interest in good public services.”

Elsewhere in his Times column, Gove claimed that education department officials had dismissed colleagues who questioned the status quo as “viruses”, with Whitehall still not welcoming to “outsiders who challenge groupthink”.

And he said that while ministers were often sacked when policies went wrong, the senior tier of the civil service remains “insulated from responsibility for their actions, while the projects they’re supposed to be managing fail and fail again”.

“Having worked for six years in Whitehall I got to know lots of brilliant civil servants,” he added. “I also know that many of them left and are leaving in exasperation at the complacency, blame-shifting and bottom-covering among too many of their superiors who duck responsibility when crisis after crisis occurs.”

Gove's comments chime with claims made by former Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge, who wrote in her recently-published book that the top of the civil service still resembled a "masonic lodge", and was "full of people from a similar background, who have mostly been lifelong civil servants and whose main purpose is to protect themselves and each other".

Hodge told CSW that prime minister Theresa May should insist that one-third of all permanent secretaries are drawn from outside of the civil service, in a bid to change the culture of the organisation.

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

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Submitted on 25 November, 2016 - 10:50
Failure on the part of the Contractor to satisfy the technical specification requirements, in full, is an all too familiar occurrence on defence equipment procurement programmes. The total power blackouts on the Type 45 destroyers is only the latest (publicly declared) example. This sort of thing keeps on happening because instead of employing talented engineers, problem-solvers and innovators to tackle technical risks as they arise, Defence Contractors prefer to engage expensive parliamentary lobbyists so that they can deploy these people to swing the decision on down-selection, by circumventing MoD’s weak competition process – where it matters most, in the corridors of power using arguments that have nothing whatsoever to do with the qualities of the equipment being offered! Anyone who has worked in the defence engineering industry will know that financial risks start-out as innocuous looking technical risks on the Defence Contractor’s premises, where selected ones are deliberately concealed by the Contractor during the design and development phase, then skilfully transferred to MoD Abbey Wood, Bristol where they morph into ‘show stopping’ risks and come to the fore immediately after the main investment decision has been taken (as they have done so spectacularly on the Type 45 destroyers with total power blackouts), ultimately ending up as an additional cost burden on the Front Line Commands, who have recently been given responsibility for the defence equipment budget – resulting in sleepless nights for many people! This happens because a key behavioural characteristic of Defence Contractors is that they will always choose to conceal technical risks identified early in the programme, by engaging with procurement officials and getting them to focus on declared risks which ordinarily fall in the trivia category, whilst skilfully diverting their attention away from those really huge ‘show stopping’ risks which they will only reveal later on, when things go wrong, to realise their objective of ‘growing’ the Contract by getting Abbey Wood Team Leader to raise Contract Amendments and/or let Post Design Services Contracts. They achieve this by contriving situations which entice procurement officials into partaking in detailed design decisions relating to the evolving Technical Solution, and then use this involvement to coerce procurement officials into raising Contract Amendments later on. Indeed, it the very existence of Contract Amendments and PDS Contracts that causes Contractors to conceal ‘show stopping’ risks in the first place! These concealed risks then come to the fore immediately after (never before) the main investment decision has been taken, surprising everyone (except the Contractor) and imposing a budget-busting burden on MoD. And because there exists no ‘Code on Ethical Behaviour in Business’ which would offer protection to good people on the Contractor’s payroll (generally in the direct labour category) who are driven by strong professional, ethical and moral values and who would otherwise blow the whistle on this conspiracy of concealment, they are forced to remain silent. The only people who are not in the know about this blatant scam are those in the pay of the State! So the chances of financial risks coming to the fore soon after the main investment decision has been taken are about as certain as night follows day. @JagPatel3 on twitter

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