It may be fewer than 50 days now to the general election, but there’s an important date much closer for many civil servants: 30 March, when parliament dissolves.
For six short weeks from 30 March to the general election on 7 May, purdah restricts what civil servants can do. Of course, most simply continue with their everyday jobs, unaffected by the purdah rules. But purdah does bring an end-of-term feeling, a totting-up of work accomplished and work that may never now see the light of day.
Civil servants recently got a mixed end-of-term report from one of the chief beaks, Sir Amyas Morse, comptroller and auditor general of the National Audit Office. Speaking at an event organised by the Reform thinktank, Morse gave a measured assessment of the management skills and capabilities of the civil service and what he described as pervasive issues that stand in the way of faster improvement of public services.
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While Morse said he has seen real advance in the management capabilities of some departments, singling out HM Revenue and Customs, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Food and Rural Affairs for special praise, he added that he would have expected skills to have moved ahead faster. Pondering on whether civil service managers are sufficiently well-equipped to meet the challenges of greater austerity after the election, he concluded that answering those challenges “looks like a very tough test indeed”.
But Morse did let civil servants off one very important hook. For too long, they have been accused by ministers, on and off the record, of obstructing change. Not true, at least in a deliberate way, said Morse. But he added that staff were sometimes reluctant to admit that they did not have the skills or capacity to implement policies and so ended up with unachievable timescales on projects, Universal Credit being the obvious example.
For some civil servants, purdah will be a welcome chance to get on with some “real” work. I recently met two civil servants who couldn’t wait. Six weeks for them of getting on with some real statistical analysis: bliss!
But they were fortunate; they work in an area where their figures are unlikely to be needed by politicians. In the run-up to the election, the use of statistics, always fraught, has now become a very real battleground for politicians. Rows are already under way. The Department of Work and Pensions, for instance, has recently come under fire for dismissing research by Newcastle University into the true social cost of the bedroom tax. It’s not an isolated incident; the department has already been rebuked by the national statistics authority for claiming that the benefit cap led to 8,000 more people obtaining employment.
The Alliance for Useful Evidence, which is supported by the Big Lottery Fund, the Economic and Social Research Council and the charity Nesta, has urged politicians to be decent, legal, honest and truthful in their use of evidence. It’s a delightfully optimistic aim, but I fear you might as well urge a duck to moo.
Jane Dudman is editor of Guardian Public Leaders
An extended version of this article can be found on the Guardian Public Leaders network