Whitehall reform ‘below the salt territory’ for too many mandarins, says Francis Maude

Written by Jim Dunton on 19 November 2019 in News
News

Former Cabinet Office minister reflects on forces that oppose change in an exclusive interview with The Civil Service World Podcast

Francis Maude has recounted his frustrations with pushing through Whitehall reform in a no-punches-pulled interview with The Civil Service World Podcast in which top-level resistance to change is a recurring theme.

Maude – now Lord Maude of Horsham – was minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010 to 2015 as part of the coalition government, and oversaw the creation of the Government Digital Service and a push to mutualise more public-sector operations, of which MyCSP was one result.

In his interview with The Civil Service World Podcast, Maude said that while the civil service excelled in crises –  particularly in the national security field – there were “well-known reasons” why operational reform programmes failed to achieve their original goals.


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“There is political push-back; politicians haven’t got that quite right,” he said. “There is vested-interest resistance, active resistance, there’s system inertia – which every organisation suffers from, but a public service maybe more, because there are fewer imperatives behind it.

“But the fourth element, which is often ignored, is the sheer lack of technical expertise in the things that don’t get that much attention – delivery, implementation, execution.”

Maud listed technical skills in financial management, procurement, IT and digital – and running property and major projects effectively – and blamed a lack of top-level buy-in for change programmes as a fundamental block.

“We started to address these issues,” he said of the coalition government.

“But if you don’t have world-class capability in government to enable the big programmes and projects to be implemented effectively then it’s much harder to deal with the political push-back, much harder to rebut the vested-interest resistance and much harder to overcome the inertia.

“That’s actually the foundation layer of how governments need to get better.

“The reality is that these horizontal, cross-cutting functions, which are at the heart of many of the reforms that we sought to push through get far too little attention from politicians.

“Even politicians who come from business, when they come into politics and government, they kind of think that they want to do policy – not the sort of things they were doing in business.

“For far too many mandarins, policy-oriented mandarins, this is below the salt territory where they don’t get that engaged. That’s why a lot of things don’t go nearly as well as they should.”

Maude told Civil Service World  that the loss of momentum behind his mutuals drive was one of his biggest regrets.

“That was one of the things that gave me most pleasure when you used to visit mutuals – I think there were 110 of them – and ask them would you go back and work for the NHS, the council, the government department, whatever they’d come out of,” he said.

“And I never heard anyone say anything other than an immediate ‘no’.

“Nearly all of them chose to be a not-for-profit. When I would ask why would you not go back, the answer would nearly always be some variant of ‘because now we can do things, we are free from constraints, we can see what needs to be done and we can just get on and do it’.”

Maude said the productivity uplift in mutuals when they span out of the public sector was immense. But he said the NHS establishment had been “deeply resistant” to the movement.

He conceded that it was “disappointing” that the mutuals drive attracted less interest from staff in central government in terms of spinning out their operations.

“There were parts of government that were resistant to it, who saw it as a loss of control,” he said.

“There might have been resistance to it as disguised outsourcing. Which I suppose it is.”

Maude said there was no shortage of entrepreneurial skill in the public sector, but believed it was often used to “circumvent bureaucratic constraints” rather than to create new things.

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