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