Oliver Letwin's attacks on civil servants show an ex-minister divorced from the reality of what they do

Written by Dave Penman, FDA union on 2 March 2017 in Opinion

FDA general secretary Dave Penman takes the former Cabinet Office minister to task after he said civil servants in line departments rely too heavily on jargon and management skills to get by

During the last government, civil service reform was never far from some ministers’ thoughts and proclamations. It reminded me of The X-Factor. Not so much the vaguely talented amateurs trying to convince us they knew what they were doing… more that every six months there seemed to be a new version of it appearing on some channel or another.

Having been around the civil service for 30 years now, I’ve never known a time when “reform” was not a constant. That’s the reality of most major organisations, never mind one that has to continually adapt to changing political and economic realities.

So “reform” continues apace, and as one permanent secretary put it a while back, not because a minister tells us to do it, but because it’s a necessary and constant part of delivering modern public services.

Civil servants forced to "play the game" to make career progress, claims ex-minister Oliver Letwin
Oliver Letwin: civil service must reward expertise over "management guff"
Terminological inexactitudes: handy translations of Whitehall jargon (Vol. 21)

The top-down reform agenda has quietened a little over the last couple of years but just as nature abhors a vacuum, so the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, or as readers of this column will recognise them, the Alpacas, have launched an enquiry into the work of the civil service no less. I love a committee that has focus.

The Alpacas – or at least the head of this particular inflation (the collective term apparently) – lobbied for most of the last parliament to have a commission on the civil service launched. This fell on deaf ears, so in the absence of a commission, it appears we have this.

Now it's not that such enquiries cannot provide useful insight into the workings of the service, but given the scale and complexity of the civil service, is it really going to be meaningful or just an opportunity for a whinge (which funnily enough is also the collective term for a group of trade union officials)?

"Letwin seems incapable of dissociating the actions of his government from the problems he encountered"

Former minister Oliver Letwin has decided to throw in his tuppence-worth by way of a two-page letter to the committee. You may remember Mr Letwin, he once famously couldn't tell the difference between the dog poo bins in St James's Park and a confidential waste bag, but we won't linger on that one.

Naturally he starts his letter with effusive praise for most civil servants he met, well at least the ones he might happen to bump into again. It's a trend I've noticed with some ministers. Their civil servants were excellent stand-up types, just what you'd expect, but other people's civil servants fell short of the mark. So for Ollie, civil servants at the centre were super, not so those in departments.

Civil servants outside the centre "especially (but not exclusively) in more junior positions" found it “difficult to write clearly”. Now junior to Ollie, I think, is about G7 level: he starts his letter saying he met civil servants at all levels from G7 to permanent secretary, which I think says something in itself, but I'll return to that later.

He also says departments have “a strong inclination in too many cases to avoid the hard work of examining facts at first hand and were too often willing to resort instead to prolixity and jargon”. Don't feel bad, I had to look that one up as well.

He then goes on to rail against departments placing emphasis on "leadership" skills and the fact that some civil servants were promoted "because of supposed skills in ‘management’". Which, I assume by his emphasis, are derogatory terms in his lexicon. He also complains that civil servants keep moving jobs to enhance their careers.

Now I don't doubt Ollie's sincerity, or that at times he felt frustrated and didn't receive what he was looking for from civil servants. But the problem with open-ended enquiries like this is you get random accounts that in no way enlighten the committee, other than the ramblings of particular ex-ministers as they sit on a park bench by the dog poo bin.

I could, and have, criticised his comments. To me, they demonstrate a minister who was divorced from the reality of what the 90% of the civil service he never met was actually doing: delivering public services. He seems incapable of dissociating the actions of his government from the problems he encountered. 

His government slashed civil service numbers, resources and training budgets over a very short period, yet demanded more, not less. They froze pay, increased pension costs and tore away at almost every element of the package, fixated as they were on a perception of "fat cat" civil servants. The result is a system where civil servants have to move job or seek promotion to get any chance of a pay rise. Not by accident – this is design.

So just as the government is lining up the service for even greater budget cuts, while asking it to deliver the biggest legislative and administrative task since the Second World War, maybe some examination of the realities associated with those irreconcilable objectives would be a better use of the Alpacas time. But then, as we know, I'm just a whinger.

About the author

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union for senior officials

Share this page

Further reading in our policy hubs

Add new comment


Phil C (not verified)

Submitted on 2 March, 2017 - 13:19
An interesting article. Even as a junior civil servant, I've noticed that Ministers compliment the civil servants they work with but damn the wider fraternity with no apparent justification other than their political bias and prejudice. Cameron and Osborne were particularly noted for it. The comment about promotion and pay rise is spot on.

Pliney the Elder (not verified)

Submitted on 3 March, 2017 - 09:42
Always remember - when it suits them the minister play to the Daily Wail readers' mind set.

Tom Lewis (not verified)

Submitted on 2 March, 2017 - 19:20
Excellent piece.

William (not verified)

Submitted on 3 March, 2017 - 11:12
I also seem to remember Mr Letwin said that Civil Servants won't get a pay rise, but their social standing will be improved. Is that connected to reality? I suppose it is for someone that had an Eton and Trinity College education.

Contact the author

The contact details for the Civil Service World editorial team are available on our About Us page.

Related Articles

Related Sponsored Articles

A radical re-think for public sector transformation
2 November 2015

With the ‘low-hanging fruit’ exhausted, the public sector must approach new government saving...

Successful partnerships: working effectively with central government
26 August 2014

TCS is keen to contribute to the topic of successful partnerships between the public and private...