Oliver Letwin: civil service must reward expertise over "management guff"

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 1 November 2016 in News

Exclusive: David Cameron’s policy guru and former Cabinet Office minister warns agains "jargon-ridden, non-sensical, useless, distracting management speak" and argues for better treatment of civil servants to compensate for pay restraints

Former Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, photographed for CSW by Gary Dunn, Photoshot

David Cameron’s former policy guru Oliver Letwin has called on the civil service to do more to value staff with genuine expertise rather than those able to spout "management guff".

Speaking exclusively to CSW, Letwin – who served as a Cabinet Office and head of the former prime minister's Implementation Unit – bemoaned the spread of “jargon-ridden, non-sensical, useless, distracting management speak” across the civil service, and said the organisation must get better at promoting people “who are not commanding large groups of people but rather are doing their jobs extremely well”.

In an interview to be published later this week, Letwin said that when he returned to government in 2010 he felt "an awful lot of people were wasting an awful lot of time engaged in this sort of management guff".

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“More important even than that, I had the sense that people felt, probably rightly, that in many cases their career prospects would be dimmed if they didn't engage in this sort of stuff," he added.

He explained that his concern with management speak was not just “the ghastly jargon and the waste of time”, but that a focus on management initiatives may disadvantage staff who were not suited to join in. 

Letwin said staff who “knew more than any other living person about something and had been grinding away for years making the machinery of state work better rather than worse” could often be required move into a different role or take on management responsibilities to gain promotions. 

“This is a terrible mistake,” he said. “I think it’s a system-wide problem. The civil service needs to find means of promoting, in terms of rank, advancing, in terms of status, and honouring those who are not commanding large groups of people but are rather doing some jobs extremely well.”

Letwin – who kept a relatively low-profile during his time as a minister but who was seen as one of the key policy thinkers in the Cameron governments – also strongly defended the civil service against accusations of cronyism and dismissive comments from MPs and the media.

“I quite frequently found myself at select committee hearings and so forth causing consternation by defending the civil service,” he told CSW. “I think it’s important that we do that.”

The former minister said that, since civil service pay constraints were a given, it was vital to  challenge misconceptions about the work done by officials.

He added: “I think it’s really quite important that somehow or other we correct some of those mythologies. The operation of democracy and a free press will always seriously limit the amounts we're able to pay senior officials by comparison with the commercial sector.

“Of course jobs in the civil service have an intrinsic interest which attracts people, but I think the only hope for maintaining the quality [of civil servants], which the whole country desperately needs us to maintain, is if the social standing of people in the civil service is high enough to compensate for the financial limitations.”

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Suzannah Brecknell
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Suzannah Brecknell is CSW's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

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Civil Servant (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 11:22
Could not agree more. Management speak is a fortress into which people retreat when they do no understand their own role or the work of other people.

anon (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 11:33
yes well not basing promotion entirely on little what I did for my holiday essays about when I took a decision under pressure, might be a start


Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 11:37
Astute but simple observations on the failings of the Civil Service. Here is another that falls into the category of “management guff”. Problems should be called exactly what they are, problems – not challenges – the management-speak word used to downplay the seriousness of problems, which have afflicted every facet of life in the Public and Private Sector, but especially in defence procurement. There are some people who are called problem-solvers, but no one is referred to as a challenge-solver! In today’s world, there is a desperate need for problem-solvers and innovators – in just about every field of human endeavour, although they are not advertised as such. @JagPatel3 on twitter

Patsy (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 13:01
At last someone speaks out for the hard workers and the career ladder climber who speak a lot of nonsense and do previous little that makes an impact on the lives of the public unless it enhances their career. The endless swishing around of people does not broaden their expertise and enhance impact; it dilutes impact and deskills. staff have become jack of all trades and master of none.

Mr Flibble is v... (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 16:21
It's a pity Mr Letwin didn't do more for Civil Servants when he was Mr Cameron's advisor.

Phil C (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 21:51
You got that right.

Iftekhar Bukhari (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 13:09
So true, management speak is a bit like nationalism it the best hiding place of the roguish incompetent but can we also add the chronic initiative initiators to that group - those wonderful people who are real blue sky thinkers but never stick around long enough to be judged for the consequences.

Officer Dibble (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 13:14
He's right that management-speak is a drain on energy and commonsense. It does not come from ministers; it comes from the top of the civil service. Perm Secs, DGs, directors - these people should know better, but all too often they don't. He accurately describes the problem of working in the same job for years, becoming an expert, and not being rewarded for it but instead needing to move on (in extreme cases, directly against the national interest) for the sake of your career. But wasn't that the point of progression pay, which his government abolished? I'm afraid he's talking nonsense about rewarding people with "social standing" rather than paying them properly. Civil servants are not, in general, snobs any more than they are rampant materialists. It would be nice not to be portrayed as parasites in the media, but again, it's his ministerial colleagues in government who have done that (he hasn't, to be fair). Keep the civil service affordable by continuing to shrink its numbers by all means, but the endless pay freeze is not sustainable. We expect to be paid less than we would earn for equivalent jobs in the private sector, but as the gap becomes extreme, inevitably the best people will (and already do) simply leave.

Mr Flibble (not verified)

Submitted on 2 November, 2016 - 16:04
Officer Dribble, Completely agree - Mr Letwin is saying that if we get treated better our social standing will improve. Personally, I'm going to try that argument with the bank and the supermarket. I wonder how far I'll get. any ideas?

rick aston (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 13:25
I agree with Mr. Letwin but why is it when he was David Camerons guru that so many jobs in the civil service went by the way of privatisation, jobs which were outsourced to private companies who have now been found lacking in their delivery and we as civil servants have to pick up the pieces of private companies ineptitudes.

rick aston (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 13:26
didn't print my first comment ?

Rufus Brevett (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 13:37
Declare an interest - hes married to a civil servant.

William (MOD) (not verified)

Submitted on 1 November, 2016 - 14:35
Dear Mr Letwin, The Government has rewarded experienced Civil servants... They've stopped increments, frozen pay for 3 years, imposed a 6 year pay restraint at less than 1%, increased pension contributions by a factor of 4. What more reward do we need...? But, moving away from the sarcasm - I agree with the sentiment, but as you said "civil service pay constraints were a given" - so how will any rewards be funded. Because a shiny badge or a "well done" certificate doesn't pay a mortgage.

Tom D (not verified)

Submitted on 2 November, 2016 - 10:30
There is some merit in what is said here, however, what we cannot let drop is a requirement for specialists, in whatever field, to demonstrate and evidence 'Leadership' skills as a prerequisite for promotion. In that I mean the ability to communicate, influence and problem solve in a wider business context, fitting in with strategic direction. We also need to ensure they are inspirational for others - essentially to help grow experts of the future.

Civil (not verified)

Submitted on 4 November, 2016 - 12:56
"communicate, influence and problem solve in a wider business context" And here I was thinking that we were talking about public service, not business.

Mr Flibble is v... (not verified)

Submitted on 2 November, 2016 - 10:43
Mr Letwin, Firstly, I agree with the early part of your article when you criticise the use of “management guff” (I have another word which is the common description of the waste product of a male bovine) and how you need to be able to speak-it to gain promotion. But later on – I find your comments concerning and somewhat insulting. I think what got to me most was “since civil service pay constraints were a given” and “the social standing of people in the civil service is high enough to compensate for the financial limitations”. What I took from that is – accept your lot because you’re not getting a pay rise, but if we’re nice to you you’ll get over it. I’m sorry – but social standing does not feed my family or pay a mortgage. Unlike Ministers and MPs – we haven’t had an independent review to “force” an unwilling workforce to accept a 10% and we don’t feel that "we’re all in this together” (which I think your previous boss said!)

Drogo (not verified)

Submitted on 3 November, 2016 - 10:03
He's not wrong

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 4 November, 2016 - 03:09
Is the social standing of civil servants high enough? Hardly, and that is the way it should be. Face it, the public does not like us, and very rightly so. The majority of us are red-tape-loving bureaucrats that ordinary people find difficult to relate to.

Mr Flibble (not verified)

Submitted on 8 November, 2016 - 11:39
Dear Anonymous, Speak for yourself. The vast majority of people I work with (military and civilian) are easy going and good company. We're just fed up being our employer making our terms and conditions worse.

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