The most remarkable aspect of the government’s Declaration on Government Reform, published last month by prime minister Boris Johnson and cabinet secretary Simon Case, is what it is not rather than what it is.
It is not the latest salvo in the ‘culture war’ ripping through British public life. Over the past year, even amidst the pandemic, the government has seemed unable to deal with a major British institution other than through the prism of divisive political signalling. Museum bosses are publicly summoned to be admonished for their presentation of imperial history. Of all the challenges facing universities, the one the government sees fit to trouble a crowded legislative programme with is the thinly evidenced ‘problem’ of ‘no-platforming’ at university events. A few seconds of ill-judged giggling from BBC Breakfast presenters leads to a hurried change in flags and emblems policy and a ramping up of briefing against the corporation. Key public appointments are subject to remarkably politicised briefing before interview panels have even met to sift the candidates.
So it is striking – and to the credit of the cabinet secretary and indeed to the prime minister and Michael Gove, the minister responsible – that the declaration is, by contrast, spectacularly dull. Whilst it’s consistent with critical government objectives – for example its emphasis on moving power and opportunity outside London and the south – it is a profoundly serious attempt to improve the performance of the state rather than send signals to particular political constituencies.
This shows unusual political restraint by the government, not least because there is considerable truth in the claim that the overwhelming majority of the senior members of the permanent state were pro-Remain, even if there is no truth in the accusations that post-referendum they tried to overturn the result to leave the European Union. And it is this very conventional nature of the declaration – there is very little in it that could not have appeared in one of Tony Blair’s many papers on reforming the state – that may upset that wing of modern conservatism that favours uprooting what they see as a complacent, weak and unambitious mandarinate.
To see the declaration as either weak or a triumph of the so-called ‘blob’ would, however, be mistaken, or at least premature. That is because there the declaration is the mirror opposite of what the government has been doing elsewhere: there is substance to the document but no fiery political spin. By contrast, for all the provocative rhetoric, the government has no intention to or serious plans for reform of the BBC, or universities, or museums, or indeed virtually any of our major institutions. But they quite enjoy picking essentially inconsequential, short-term fights to generate headlines that they’re ‘pro-Britain’ or ‘anti-woke’, or some such in the belief that this plays to the constituency that delivered their substantial majority.
The declaration, by contrast, contains some interesting seeds for substantial public service reform, cleverly hidden under the bland, Blairite headings of people, performance and partnerships. For sure, old technocratic favourites such as enhancing appraisals, opening up job adverts to outsiders and that hardy perennial of relocating outside London make their obligatory appearance.
And yet, some proposals are profoundly interesting if properly developed. The plans to enhance the role of data in the civil service and address the profound gap in scientific and technical skills could be genuinely transformational. So too could the concept of administrative apprenticeships. Mandating interoperability in new IT systems and a single login for government services shows the government has been listening to people who know what they’re talking about. And all of these ideas challenge established power structures, vested interests, and departmental silos more than the banal drafting suggests. For example, the proposals for more unconventional, multi-disciplinary teams hints at intent to repeat the successful innovation of the Vaccine Task Force, an open challenge to any thoughts of a civil service monopoly. These may not excite culture warriors, but they should excite serious public service reformers.
And it matters that these plans have been published in a formal document. Like any set of institutions, Whitehall has its own currency of power. Public documents signed by the prime minister and cabinet secretary drive activity in a way that the Johnson administration’s efforts on civil service reform – firing a few permanent secretaries pour encourager les autres and making the odd ministerial speech – do not. The two most impactful reformers of the British state in the 21st century, Sir Michael Barber and Francis Maude, both understood the importance of this type of government process in driving reform and the currency it bought them (Sir Michael’s influence is now sought once again by the government). The framing of the declaration in a way that is boring to external readers but very useful in internal bureaucratic struggles to overcome resistance to reform suggests a seriousness about delivery. This makes the declaration a necessary but not sufficient basis for reform: what matters is what happens now.
The plan has its faults. Its approach to the governance of departments were insipid even before the Matt Hancock scandal made that glaringly obvious; departmental boards have never found their place in the remarkably resilient Victorian architecture dominated by secretaries of state and permanent secretaries. And, as Professor Colin Talbot has noted, the declaration is very weak on the challenges of our complicated devolved UK, though this is not so much the fault of the document as a reflection of a government that does not know what sort of Union it wants to save.
Moreover, even in respect of the good bits, there is no chance all of the plans in the declaration will be implemented successfully: that never happens. But it is precisely because the paper is demonstrably not a substance-free verbal assault on the civil service that there may be more to it than initially meets the eye. It stands a chance of being much more than just a cessation of hostilities between Britain’s strikingly new form of political leadership and the officialdom that serves it.
Ciaran Martin is professor of practice in the management of public organisations at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He was previously the founding chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre.