Jane Dudman: The "Maude era" may be over, but what lies ahead won't be easy for Whitehall

Jane Dudman​ reads the runes as the civil service adjusts to a changing of the ministerial guard

By Jane Dudman

15 May 2015

After the election cometh the reshuffle. The old nameplates have been unscrewed from ministerial office doors, or, in quite a lot of cases, given a quick polish as previous incumbents return.

Eric Pickles has left behind his bunting at the Department for Communities and Local Government, while Francis Maude, the scourge of the civil service for the past five years, has left his airy office in 70 Whitehall for his new job as a trade minister.

What will the next five years have in store for civil servants? New ministers and their special advisers are under close scrutiny and every message is being pored over. So it was unfortunate that when prime minister David Cameron showed up at the first post-election Wednesday meeting of permanent secretaries, the photo of the meeting showed a relaxed, tieless prime minister flanked by seven white men wearing ties.

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Is that really the best image of the modern civil service leaders? Clearly not, because  only a few hours later, and obviously stung by widespread and immediate criticism on social media, Sir Jeremy Heywood asked to be judged not on photos, but facts. But Heywood knows that both matter – and even on a factual basis, he had to acknowledge that there is still more to do to address diversity, especially at senior levels.

What happens in the first days of any government set the tone and Whitehall-watchers are avidly reading the runes to try and gather what Matt Hancock, Maude’s successor as Cabinet Office minister, intends to do about civil service reform.

One thing is certain: whatever lies ahead won’t be a land of milk and honey. Fiscal restraints will remain firmly in place. John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service, has made it crystal clear that there’ll be no easing up on pay restraint. And far from getting rid of the much-hated performance management system, Manzoni told delegates at the FDA’s annual conference that he wants more conversations about performance.

But Manzoni also gave some clues about how the tone of the relationship between the new Cabinet Office minister and civil servants over the next five years might be a bit warmer than the sometimes frosty era of the past five. Noting that he’d never before spoken at a union conference, Manzoni took the opportunity to declare an end to the Maude era.

He urged civil service leaders not just to “look upwards” but to focus “forwards and downwards” as well. It’s sometimes hard to work out what Manzoni actually means, amid the business buzzwords, but it was pretty clear this time that he wants senior civil servants to move away from a relentless focus on their relationship with ministers and think more about motivating and supporting staff. That is a break with the past. In Manzoni’s inimitable argot, he acknowledged that although a lot of important issues had been tackled, “we hadn’t figured out how to...enable the good stuff to happen”.

Of course, making the “good stuff happen” might be a bit harder than simply telling civil servants they need to figure out a way keep staff happy in the face of five more years of cuts and pay restraint.

But it’s not just Manzoni and Heywood who are struggling with mixed messages. Civil service unions, too, are between a rock and a hard place, as they feel the impact of a shrinking civil service on their own membership numbers - and income.

After Manzoni had delivered his speech and headed back to Whitehall, the FDA had what one member described as a meaty debate. The union, which has always restricted its membership to grade 7 and above, is extend membership to civil servants at HEO and SEO levels. For a union with a membership of just 18,000, eyeing up a potential new membership of 100,000 may seem pragmatic, for economic survival, but this is not an easy move for the FDA. It also opens up the prospect of a union turf war.

The Maude era may be over, but what’s to come is still unsure.

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