Frankie, famously, said "relax". I literally bought the T-shirt back in the day, as the old saying goes, just before I turned weekend Goth and only wore black and purple.
It’s hard to relax these days, though, when it comes to the civil service and this government. I’m not sure if Frankie Maude, rumoured to be conducting a review on civil service governance, said relax, I would.
That’s not to decry Lord Maude of Horsham. Well, not totally. As minister for the Cabinet Office from 2010-15, he was a reforming, informed and, at times, engaging minister. As well as driving the government’s austerity agenda, he sought to reform and improve the commercial skills in government and pushed heavily for digital by default. There was also some tinkering with the constitutional settlement, introducing Extended Ministerial Offices which included a hinterland of political/civil service appointees, and a contestable policy fund, where departments could commission policy advice from think tanks. He commissioned work from IPPR looking at examples elsewhere in Westminster-model democracies, where there was greater political involvement in the appointment of the most senior civil servants.
The succession of ministers who followed him, usually for less than a year, pursued some of the agenda but with ever-decreasing amounts of the energy that Frankie himself had showed. I would challenge most of you reading this to name the current ministers in the Cabinet Office with responsibility for the civil service, beyond the Minister for Sunny Uplands. Though if I mention Blackpool and Birmingham, it might help.
Maude had already made a return last year, when he was asked to review the cross-cutting functions and the operation of spend controls. So the news that he would be making another comeback, giving Status Quo a run for their money, felt like a government running out of ideas. Indeed, on my return from a pleasant few days in Antwerp at half term, I posted a pithy tweet on this subject, suggesting it demonstrated just that.
This does all feel a bit 2012 rather than 2022. I know this is a nostalgic government. They hanker for the days, pre-Brexit, pandemic and new Cold War when there were only 378,000 civil servants – though I think if you convert that number to metric from imperial, it actually turns out to be 479,040. Glad to be able to clear that one up.
Frankie, I’m sure, will feel like there’s some unfinished business. His push on the Extended Ministerial Offices and greater role for ministers in appointments was to some degree watered down, with resistance from the Civil Service Commission among others.
There are strong views on this subject and most people fall into one of Two Tribes. There are the purists who believe that, if you want better policy and more effective government, you need permanent civil servants who cannot be hired or fired by ministers. Recruited for what they can do rather than what they believe, they will ensure the right balance between robust evidence-based challenge and delivering for the elected government of the day. Ministers are free to ignore the advice, but have a duty to consider it, just as civil servants have a duty to deliver evidence-based, rather than ideological, advice.
"Maude had already made a return last year, when he was asked to review the cross-cutting functions and the operation of spend controls. So the news that he would be making another comeback, giving Status Quo a run for their money, felt like a government running out of ideas"
There are others who think that ministers are better served by being able to appoint those who they consider to be closer to their policy objective, though of course they would argue that its more about picking their experts than simply reinforcing their world view. As IPPR concluded, there are models elsewhere that look more like that second option and their governments run just as effectively. In these models, the civil service is focussed more on delivery rather than policy advice, though that also flies in the face a little of those who believe that the best policy is created by harnessing the experience and expertise of those who are tasked with delivering it.
There is clearly a lot of middle ground, a third or even a fourth tribe (which were, I think, the tracks on the B-side of the 12”).
This is all speculation, of course, and whilst I’m reliably informed that Frankie has booked the venue for his comeback tour, there’s been no official announcement. Maude is a serious politician and there’s too few of them these days, but government has changed since he was a minister. Some of that change was, of course, down to him. When he arrived in government, his party had been out of power for over a decade and will have been more suspicious of the civil service than one that has been in charge of it for the last 12 years – though you’d be hard pressed to get the current government to acknowledge that when they want to conveniently throw someone, or indeed the entire service, under a bus.
Meantime, we can only speculate if third time around Frankie will still be able to carry it off. I saw Echo and the Bunnymen a couple of years ago and, frankly darling, Ian McCulloch didn’t have the range.
Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union