Two prominent former permanent secretaries have criticised the civil service leadership’s weekly "Wednesday Morning Colleagues" get-togethers, describing the summits as distanced from reality and lacking in focus.
A longstanding civil service tradition, the meetings – which normally take place at the Cabinet Office’s 70 Whitehall main building – are chaired by the cabinet secretary and bring together the government’s most senior officials.
However ex-Department for Education perm sec Jonathan Slater and former Department for Exiting the European Union perm sec Philip Rycroft openly criticised elements of the meetings at an event hosted by the public-sector-focused think tank Reform yesterday.
Slater, who was sacked from his role at DfE in August 2020 following the exams fiasco resulting from ministers’ decision to use algorithms to award grades in the first year of the pandemic, painted a picture of an aloof Wednesday Morning Colleagues.
“What you see at Wednesday Morning Colleagues is not a grappling of the challenges we’re facing, and what are we going to do about it,” Slater said. “It really isn’t – or it hasn’t been for 20 years, anyway. And I don’t think it ever was.”
Slater said the early stages of the spread of Covid-19 in the UK, in the spring of 2020, was a telling example of the extent to which Wednesday Morning Colleagues was distanced from reality and lacking dynamism.
“During Covid we’re meeting daily. A lot of people are dying every day. More in the UK, at the beginning, than in many other countries,” he said.
“You would not have got a sense watching that room of a group of people grappling that sort of situation and [animatedly asking] ‘what are we going to do?’ and ‘is that the right answer?’. You would not get that sense from that room. Ever.”
Rycroft retired as DExEU perm sec in March 2019. He was previously second perm sec at the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for devolution and constitutional issues, and head of the deputy prime minister’s office during the last three years of the coalition government.
He told Thursday’s Reform event that his experience of Wednesday Morning Colleagues meetings was that departmental leaders appeared to lack the correct level of focus on domestic priorities.
“As you walk down those corridors in 70 Whitehall, and so on, you can feel oozing out of the stones the history of the place and that prioritising of the external and punching above our weight in the world and being a big player and the tilt to the Pacific. And all of that,” he said.
“I remember sitting around that Wednesday Morning Colleagues table and I would bang on about Scotland to – broadly speaking – disinterest from around the table. And then our ambassador to Beijing would turn up and everybody would sit up, absolutely fascinated.
“And I just thought the priorities, the mental maps, were just tilted in the wrong sort of way.”
Both Slater and Rycroft spoke in favour of civil service reform at Thursday’s event.
Rycroft, who spent time working in private sector roles between Scottish Government and UK government postings, said he did not believe anyone should be promoted to the Senior Civil Service unless they had worked outside of government for at least three years.
He also argued in favour of civil servants being held more closely to account for the quality of advice provided to ministers.
Slater said he believed there was a degree of dissatisfaction among some top-level officials with the way the civil service operates, which could be a tipping point for change.
“Maybe, if parliament’s a bit more demanding, we could get there,” he said.
He suggested that the baton may need to pass from Simon Case to a new cabinet secretary for change to come.
“Leadership matters,” Slater said. “When Gus [O’Donnell] was running the civil service he had some things that he wanted to achieve and he achieved them.
“Watch who replaces Simon Case, when that happens, and what their agenda is. If they want to do some stuff in this space they can.”
Slater said he believed genuine civil service reform would need to be driven by parliament and aided with a codifying statute.