Maude: It’s ‘a myth’ that the UK has the best civil service in the world

Former Cabinet Office minister says service is a “deeply flawed institution” but accepts it has some great civil servants
Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA

By Jim Dunton

23 Oct 2020

Reform-driving former Cabinet Office minister Lord Francis Maude has dismissed the often repeated claim that the UK  has the best civil service in the world as a “myth” and complained Whitehall is beset with an “odd combination of insecurity and complacency”.

Maude’s comments came in reflection on his time as Cabinet Office minister from 2010-2015 when he oversaw the government's attempts to reform the civil service, which included the introduction of extended ministerial offices and fixed-term appointments for perm secs. His tenure also saw the introduction of a controversial performance-management regime that required 10% of staff to be described as “poor” performers and the mutuals drive, which saw the creation of pensions administrator My Civil Service Pension

In a podcast interview with City A.M., Maude – who is also advising the current government on its own civil service reform agenda – was asked about his experiences as a minister and whether there was a resistance to change in departments. 

Maude replied that the civil service was “excessively defensive” about itself in a way that was born out of an “odd combination of insecurity and complacency” that was completely unacceptable. 

“We have to be hard-headed and clear sighted about what’s capable of being improved and what isn’t working well because otherwise you’re never going to address it,” Maude said. 

“If there is this sort of impermeable wall of resistance to criticism or exposing the room for improvement then nothing is going to get better.”

The former Cabinet Office minister said that during his time in office speechwriters would routinely hand him first drafts of speeches on the civil service that began with the sentence: “The British civil service is the best in the world.”

Maude said: “We got fed up with just crossing that out and we then explored what evidence there is. And we found that the only ranking was a World Bank ranking for government effectiveness where the UK ranked 16th.

“It is a myth that this is the best civil service in the world. But whenever I would say this some former civil service leaders would rail against me that I was running down civil servants and I wasn’t.

“There is a real distinction. We have absolutely some of the best civil servants in the world, but the civil service as an institution is deeply flawed.”

The UK’s current ranking on the World Bank government effectiveness index is 20th. However a new metric produced by Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and the Institute for Government last year ranked the civil service as the world’s best such organisation.

Maude said that one reason he believed the UK civil service model was flawed was in terms of ministerial office staffing levels. 

“Countries that have the same model as us – Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the same thing as the Westminster system and a permanent impartial civil service –  they have offices that are much more highly powered than ours are,” he said. 

“The civil service [and] permanent secretaries have felt quite unaccountable in real time.”

The distinction was not drawn by Maude, but Canada, Australia and New Zealand all rank higher than the UK on the World Bank government effectiveness index.

Maude said that the introduction of fixed, but renewable, five-year terms for permanent secretaries had made top departmental officials feel more accountable to ministers, but the situation still a work in progress.

“It’s been done decades after the other countries I’ve mentioned introduced a similar change and it’s very salutary,” he said.

“So this has been a very important development, but there’s a long way still to go.”

Maude said that when he was Cabinet Office minister people often asked him when “all this reform” was going to come to an end.

“The answer is never,” he said. “The old days of steady-state management, business as usual … those days are gone. 

“If you’re not getting better you’re getting worse. If you think you’re staying the same, then actually you’re getting worse. The idea that you do reform once and then it’s fine.  That’s not possible.”

Maude added that a lot of the skills gaps that were identified in the civil service during his time at the Cabinet Office were in the area of technical and operational capability.

“That’s not a one-off thing, its constant,” he said.

Maude’s full interview with Christian May of City A.M. can be heard here.

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