Eyerolls, avoiding the phone and docs in the bin – how civil service leaders have responded to reform efforts

Former senior government leaders set out barriers to reform in think tank report
Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

02 Aug 2023

From eyerolls, to avoiding the phone, to throwing documents in the bin, civil service leaders’ aversion to government reform has been revealed in a new report by think tank Reform.

Senior officials’ reluctance is one of the key barriers to reform revealed in the report, which is based on 27 interviews with former cabinet secretaries, perm secs, Cabinet ministers and SpAds.

Here’s what CSW learnt from the Reform report: Breaking Down Barriers: Why Whitehall is so hard to reform.

Civil service leaders meet reform efforts with eyerolls

All interviewees agreed that sustainable, cross-Whitehall reform must be instigated and driven from the centre.

But the report said one of the most common phrases uttered by interviewees when asked how civil service leaders responded to reform efforts instigated by the centre of government, was “eye rolling”.

Permanent secretaries are not interested enough in reform – and do not tend to see it as their job to drive it, the think tankfound.

One ex-perm said told Reform: “When the Cabinet Office tries to reform departments, there is quite a bit of eye rolling about the latest initiative to come out of the centre.”

Another said: “The Treasury has an instinctive reflex on anything that comes out of the Cabinet Office, which is just sort of an eye roll...it is unlikely to actively and outwardly oppose civil service reform measures, but it might be as equally unlikely to swing in behind them and give it the priority it needs.”

“It’s extraordinary how non-compliant permanent secretaries and DGs are,” another former perm sec said. “The centre is something you doff your cap [to] when in view, but as soon as they’re out of view, you just manage it”.

One perm sec even admitted to displaying this attitude whilst in government, saying: “As a senior official, I tended to switch off [when people spoke about the latest reform effort]”.

And an ex-senior adviser recalled being sent a document about a reform agenda and a perm sec ordering them to “just bin it immediately”. “Their view was that it was just the centre pissing around”, they said.

Former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, who wrote a preface to the report, told the think tank how hard it is to drive reform from the centre, explaining he sometimes felt he had less power as cabinet secretary than as perm sec at the Home Office. “At the Home Office, I’d sometimes find I’d pulled levers and commissioned work, even if I didn’t know I had, just by casual remarks,” he said. “[As] cabinet secretary, I could barely find a lever that was connected to anything.”

Don’t call me, maybe – perm secs don’t value input from civil service COO

From switching off, to switching off phone, the response to reform action from the centre is even worse when it is the civil service chief operating officer driving it, according to the report.

Currently civil service COO Alex Chisholm is responsible for government reform but the corporate side of the Cabinet Office lacks status and power, according to former government leaders.

Perm secs “don’t mind being held to account by [the cabinet secretary], but they hated having it done by [the COO], like, ‘why is this functions guy asking me how I’m getting on with delivery of my minister’s manifesto pledges’”, one former senior civil servant told Reform.

They “ask themselves: ‘Do I take the phone call from [the COO]?’”, said a former senior political adviser.

“Operational leadership and work is not valued…there’s a disrespect for expertise…they’re very snobby about operational jobs,” added another former SpAd

Civil service 'needs more leaders with outside experience'

One solution suggested to the lack of support from perm secs for reform is to get more civil service leadrs in who have outside experience.

"Typically, people who have spent their entire career in something don’t want to change things," one ex-perm sec said. "They don’t argue for something different to come next because they don’t think it is important. It’s always easier to see opportunities for reform when you haven’t spent your career in one place.”

“It’s very difficult to break the cycle, the only way to break the cycle is to have people with different experiences," another former perm sec added.

“It’s not that outsiders are special, but they have a different experience," said another former perm sec.

Describing the common background  of perm secs, another said: “There’s a lot of people who are pretty much the same. They either went to selective grammar school or private school. They went to Oxbridge largely. They largely joined the Fast Stream. They’ve known each other since they were 24, now they happen to be 48 and permanent secretaries.”

Ex-perm secs said this should be done by bringing in external expertise at just below perm sec level.

“Don’t come in at the very highest level on your first job," one said. 

"Come in a notch below, learn what planet you’ve landed on, which way is up and then move on… If I’d landed as a perm pec straight out, I think I would have struggled.”

Another added: “It is complex, so I think you probably don’t bring in people as perm secs. I think you probably bring them in at DG level.”

“Oh here we go”: Ministerial reform gets short shrift

If reforms from top civil servants at the centre are unappreciated, ministerial reform efforts get even less buy-in, according to interviewees.

A former senior civil servant said reform proposals were met with a mixture of “intellectual curiosity” and “a kind of eye rolling, ‘oh here we go again’” attitude.

“The thing that doesn’t work as well is when ministers endlessly get their screwdriver out and fiddle around,” said another.

“When ministers are interested in civil service reform, that’s a bad sign,” an ex-perm sec added.

It at best signifies  the view that the  system requires improvement, and at worst represents a breakdown in trust in the system, Reform argued.

One ex-perm sec recounted colleagues saying “we’re not going to roll it out in that department, it’s going to cost too much and we’re not doing it”.

“And in effect [they] could get away with it, because Francis [Maude] didn’t have authority over their secretaries of state,” they added.

Maude “loathed” for reform efforts

Maude was one of the more effective reforming ministers, professionalising finance, human resources, legal and commercial role as minister for the Cabinet Office.

“Francis Maude had a very close relationship with the PM and Chancellor, therefore he was allowed to get on with it; he was trusted and it was known he had the ear of the centre,” a former senior political adviser said.

However according to one former perm sec Maude was “cordially loathed by most civil servants” because of his success and how he went about it.

“He was bloody-minded and wouldn’t take no for an answer…and he brought in [external experts], these were disrupters, but they were disrupting in quite a narrow domain…And to be fair, it broke the mould…he did irritate a lot of people, but he did achieve outcomes,” they said.

Reform said Maude is the exception that proves the rule that Whitehall reform is not the job of ministers. Instead ministers’ role should be to provide permission and endorsement, interviewees said.

Department loyalty rules in "fiefdom" government

One of the key barriers to reform is the way perm secs and ministers alike fiercely protect their department boundaries, the report found.

A former perm sec said: “There’s a strong incentive for anybody who’s ambitious to have complete control up to the edge of your boundary. And then particularly in a competitive and adversarial political system, to take no responsibility for anything on the other side. It’s a kind of sovereignty thing. And it applies to Whitehall as well. So, if you have 20 plus main government departments, you have an awful lot of those boundaries to deal with.”

“It’s a culture that’s manifested in a structure which prioritises departmental autonomy, essentially. That your loyalty, and I used to say this when I was in government, is primarily to your department. Secondly, but quite a long way second, to the government of the day,” said another ex-perm sec.

The report describes the culture as "fiefdom government", where the bureaucratic heft of the centre is no match for most delivery departments and perm secs "fail to act as stewards of the civil service".

 

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Post-Brexit border plan suffering from resourcing and oversight issues, NAO warns

Share this page