Kerslake calls for accountability and transparency as civil service reforms gather pace

Former civil service head says the Cummings office move is about power as well as efficiency
Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

14 Aug 2020

The former head of the civil service has called for greater “accountability and transparency” around the government’s Whitehall reform proposals after it was revealed that Dominic Cummings and other policy officials are to move to the Cabinet Office to oversee changes.

It was confirmed by government yesterday that the prime minister’s top adviser is to move into the Cabinet Office headquarters next month as part of a rearrangement of government offices that will also see other key Downing Street staff move buildings. The moves come as the Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm works on the government’s long-anticipated plan for civil service reform, and Cabinet Office officials have been told that the relocation – part of reforms driven by Cummings – is intended to “drive culture change” in the civil service.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Lord Kerslake, who was the head of the civil service from 2012 to 2014, said that there was a need for more transparency around what the changes would mean.

Details of the government’s aims for reform have been set out by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who has touted plans for better training, more rigorous evaluation of programmes and greater incentives for officials to stay in key roles.

Other innovations are also being introduced, including wide-ranging changes to the Government Communication Service as well as a centralisation of the roles of special advisers across Whitehall.

Kerslake told Today that the office move was “billed as [being] about efficiency, but in truth it’s about power”.

“It's the power of the prime minister and his special advisers over Whitehall, and the power of Dominic Cummings over the special advisers. They're dotted all over No.10 and this is a way you can keep an eye on them.”

He said the move itself was “not huge”, but it was important to view it in the context of the wider changes. “My concern there is not about change. It's about the transparency of what is being done, and accountability for those who are doing it.”

Also speaking on the programme, Katie Perrior – who worked as a special adviser in No.10 when she was director of communications under Theresa May – said that ministers would need to provide greater backing to officials if reforms to increase civil service effectiveness were to succeed.

“One of the things I think is really important is to make sure that they foster an environment where political advisers, the PM – whoever it might be – are regularly challenged, and that is welcomed and accepted. And I fear that in the last few years, that has kind of been eroded away.

“We [political advisers] need to have [civil servants'] backs. We need to say civil servants: 'You're too risk averse, you should do more, you should be more risky, you should take on more challenges... but we will have your backs if it doesn't quite go to plan.'

“When was the last time you heard a minister come on the Today programme and say: 'Well, actually, this is not really my win, it was my team that did a great job but they can't come on here to talk about it so I'm the representative for them'."

"[For ministers], it's all of the glory and none of the responsibility in some ways, and so civil servants should be given more of that power.”

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