The official view: Norman Baker

Written by Civil Service World on 12 January 2015 in Opinion

CSW asked Lib Dem MP and former transport and home office minister Norman Baker to appraise the UK civil service 

Did your views of the civil service change during your time in office?

Yes, my opinion of the civil service went up while I was in office. Most came across as professional, caring, properly politically neutral, and friendly. I do think however they are generally a bit risk averse, and the creative ideas tended to come from ministers rather than officials. However they were generally keen to please and responded well to initiatives.

What challenges did you face in working with civil servants?

I thought the machine was a bit sluggish and plodding on occasions, and it was difficult always to move it up a gear, or bypass the blockages. In addition, there was sometimes, unintentionally I think, a bit of coalition insensitivity.

“At the Department for Transport, I found it easy to get millions allocated for projects I was enthusiastic about, but almost impossible to get the windows opened in my office. Why? I might fall out!”

If you were Cabinet Office minister, how would you change the civil service?

I would not change very much, although I do think there is a need to promote and stretch those with real ability more quickly and creatively than happens at present. Similarly, there needs to be a way to ease out those who are performing below par. I have seen people promoted who were in my view not the most appropriate person for the post in question, perhaps not even suitable for promotion at all. In addition, I think some special advisers need to be reined in a bit, and that permanent secretaries on occasion need to be firmer in defending their civil servants from unwarranted pressure from such advisers.

Can you tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service?

At the Department for Transport, I found it relatively easy to get millions allocated for projects I was enthusiastic about, but almost impossible to get the windows opened in my office. Despite the fact that the ambient temperature was clearly wrong, I was repeatedly told it would ruin the air conditioning, and then when I finally sourced a key myself, was told I shouldn’t use it. Why? I might fall out! It is frightening how some will go to any lengths to implement the rule book, no matter what it says. The historical precedents for such a mindset are not encouraging!

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