Dom versus Declaration: How reform plan matches against Cummings’ civil service criticisms

The prime minister’s former top adviser made civil service reform a key plank of his time in No.10. Now that the official plan has been published, how much of his vision remains?
PA

By Richard Johnstone

29 Jun 2021

The government has finally published its reform plan for the civil service, after months of speculation.

This current round of civil service reform was kickstarted in July 2019 when incoming prime minister Boris Johnson brought Dominic Cummings – who had once called the permanent civil service “an idea for the history books” – into No.10 Downing Street. Although the reform drive has been taken on by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and the department’s permanent secretary and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm, it will be viewed by many through the prism of Cummings – who said Whitehall reform was one of his four key conditions to working for the prime minister.

Although the proposed reforms have come from many quarters, it is striking how much of them seem to match elements of the former No.10 adviser’s critique.

Cummings has argued for nearly a decade that government “is programmed to go wrong” and believes “failure is normal, it is not something to be avoided”.

Let’s take a look at the Declaration on Government Reform to see where it shares its ideas with the firebrand former adviser.

The plan is made up of three strands: people, performance and partnership.

People

The first strand is focused on “ensuring that the right people are working in the right places with the right incentives”. Changing the incentives of government recruitment is one of Cummings’ longstanding desires. A lot of problems with the civil service stem from the incentives for promotion in departments, Cummings said in a 2014 talk for the IPPR think tank, which set out a number of frustrations with government he has continued to highlight.

He hit out at HR practices across government and their ability to deliver policy. He said the system is bound to “create crises and frequent spectacular failures”.

“The people who are promoted tend to be the people who protect the system and don’t rock the boat,” he said of government. “It promotes people who focus on being important, not getting important things done, and it ruthlessly weeds out people who are dissenters, who are maverick and who have a different point of view.”

This means that civil servants do not have the skills to tackle big problems, which ministers cannot change due to recruitment rules, he said.

A number of the detailed points under this heading in the declaration also chime with long-standing Cummings’ priorities. These include looking “beyond London to all corners of the UK”, with a pledge to “be a government more like the country we serve”. Cummings has long lambasted what he sees as the groupthink of metropolitan London, once famously telling journalists: ”You guys should get out of London. Go and talk to people who are not rich Remainers”. If the plan comes to fruition, this will also be true of ministers, as there is a pledge that they too will “spend more time out of London, working with teams wherever they are based”.

The pledge in this section to “improve the way we recruit and the way we manage moves into and out of government” also builds on a Cummings’ critique. In his famous blog calling for “weirdos and misfits” to join No.10 Downing Street, he said: “We need to figure out how to use such people better without asking them to conform to the horrors of ‘human resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire).”

The declaration doesn’t go that far, but it does lay out a plan for greater flexibility. “It should be natural for people with careers and skills built in business to serve in government for a period, and for those in public service to spend time in organisations which are not dependent on public money – so long as there is clarity on roles and responsibilities, transparent and consistent processes, effective management of any potential or perceived conflicts of interest, and induction which firmly instils the civil service code and its values.”

To this end, there is a pledge to open all senior appointments to public competition by default, the lack of which was criticised by Cummings in his evidence to the parliamentary Covid lessons learned inquiry.

“We've got so many brilliant people in this country. And then we have a civil service system, which literally puts a massive barrier and says, ‘we're going to recruit all these things from internally’,” he said. “It's a completely crackers way of doing things.” 

There is also a pledge to give ministers “visibility of senior civil service appointments”, another key Cummings reform that he highlighted before MPs in May. Cummings said Covid had made it clear in a “disastrous” way that that while ministers were nominally in charge of hiring and firing in their departments it was not something they could actually do.

“The officials are actually in charge of hiring and firing,” he said. “As soon as you have some kind of major problem, you have that Spiderman meme with both the Spidermans pointing at each other/ It is like that, but with everybody. So you have Hancock pointing at the permanent secretary, and you have the permanent secretary pointing at Hancock. They are both pointing at the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office is pointing back at them. Everyone is right, and everyone is unhappy. Everyone kind of has a point.”

The accompanying pledge to “promote mixed-disciplinary teams and avoid hierarchies slowing down action”, and the use of “red teams” to challenge conventional thinking, were among the suggestions made by Cummings in his 2014 IPPR speech.

Pledges to “assess permanent secretaries more transparently and systematically against departmental performance” also chime with Cummings’ 2014 remark that when he wanted to pursue the civil servant who had been responsible for a project that had gone wrong it would prompt "shocked faces in Whitehall". "Their reaction is: ‘Oh my god, Dom, you can’t do that, if you did that where would it end?’ Which just about sums it up,” he said. 

Performance

The performance section is focused on “modernising the operation of government, being clear-eyed about our priorities, and objective in our evaluation of what is and is not working”.

It is led by a pledge to “reinvigorate the principle of departmental accountability”, with departments trusted to deliver by a “smarter centre”. In June 2020, Cummings signalled big changes coming to how No.10 and the Cabinet Office work, with “a smaller, more focused and more elite centre” being required.

He told special advisers at the time: "Anybody who has read what I've said about management over the years will know it's ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall's problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation. It's already far too big, incoherent and adds to the problems with departments.”

A new evaluation task force is pledged to bring some of Cummings’ red-team ethic to policy development by acting as “an inhouse scrutineer not just of value for money in programmes but effectiveness against published ambitions”.

The pledge to improve cross-government functions – such as digital, commercial, finance and human resources – is a longstanding Whitehall one, and not so directly linked to the ex No.10 adviser, but the pledge to “put data at the heart of our decision-making”, almost certainly is.

Cummings led the establishment of a data science unit in No.10, which he said had greatly aided the government’s ability to respond to Covid-19 after the first wave. “By September we had built that team and it made a huge difference” he said. “I think we will come on to the September decisions. Terrible decisions were made, but they were made for completely different reasons from those made in March. By then, there was a different set of skills and people.”

The declaration’s pledge to “champion innovation and harness science, engineering and technology to improve policy and services” again appears to be share elements of Cummings’ thinking. He said in his 2014 IPPR speech that “there was a need to “re-orient” Whitehall to what he said should be the national goal of making Britain the global leader in education and science”.

The last pledge in this section “seek excellence in project and service delivery”, with a pledge to “not allow hierarchy to impede rapid problem-solving or effective delivery, and ensure we have the right structures in place to deliver the outcomes we want as efficiently as possible”.

As Cummings wrote in his “weirdos and misfits” blog of his role: “It’s important when dealing with large organisations to dart around at different levels, not be stuck with formal hierarchies.

“It will seem chaotic and ‘not proper No.10 process’ to some. But the point of this government is to do things differently and better and this always looks messy.”

Partnership

The final section focuses on “strengthening the bond between ministers and officials, always operating as one team from policy through to delivery, and between central government and institutions outside it”.

There are four key recommendations in this area, focused first on creating “more opportunities for ministers and officials to discuss and hone policy collaboratively”. Being able to create teams around policy was one of Cumming’s responses to Covid.

“There is an obvious question about responsibility: a really fundamental question about how the British state works, about power between ministers and officials and about who is actually in charge of things and who can actually form teams,” Cummings said in his evidence to MPs.

“In normal government business, the assumption is, ‘well, we can all live with a bit of friction to have this kind of division of responsibilities and muddle along’, but it is completely fatal when you are dealing with a really serious thing.

“You need to get a great team that knows exactly what the goal is and exactly who is responsible for what. The Whitehall culture of how responsibility is deliberately diffused is intrinsically hostile to high performance management.”

Likewise, the declaration highlights lessons from the pandemic and Brexit as showing “that the best decisions are made when both ministers and officials contribute to discussions in mixed forums, rather than relying on the traditional approach of a minister alone representing their department.”

It also picks up on Cummings’ point about clarity, stating: “We will bring greater clarity to the roles, responsibilities and accountability of ministers and senior officials when taking decisions.”

The declaration concludes that it is “intended to make government work better and help us focus on our most important priorities, so we must move quickly to implement them”.

Indeed, according to Cummings’ previous thinking, this could be a good time to make reforms. Although he acknowledged the difficulty of reform in his 2014 IPPR speech, he predicted that change would come to Whitehall because of what he called at the time a “beneficial crisis”.

Cummings, who led the campaign group against Britain’s membership of the European Union, said: “People will say it's impossible to do this, but people have told me too, 'You’ll never beat Blair on the Euro, you’ll never get more than fraction of your crazy plans through the DfE'. Things are possible, particularly when crisis hits."

He added: "The EU was created on the basis of what they call beneficial crisis, and because of the nature of the world and the way things are going we’re going to see lots of beneficial crisis shortly, that would enable us to change things along the lines I’ve suggested if we want to.”

The nation has definitely faced a crisis in the pandemic. If change is to come, it could be now.

Share this page
Read next
Partner content