Sir Leigh Lewis: So Whitehall's fighting back? Good – the civil service shouldn't be a whipping boy

Former minister Francis Maude's attack on the civil service highlights what not to do if you want to improve government, argues former DWP permanent secretary Sir Leigh Lewis


19 Sep 2017

One of the joys of my (semi) retired lifestyle is having time to read the paper in the morning. One of the downsides, however, is what sometimes I find myself reading.

So it was when I recently read in The Times the full frontal attack launched by former minister, Francis Maude, on the civil service. It was all there – the “deeply flawed”, “covering up failure”, “misleading ministers”, “wasting millions”. The litany even included “turkey farming”, which is apparently moving poorly performing staff sideways or promoting them. I wondered about that one – don’t farmed turkeys normally end up dead?


I had the somewhat mixed blessing of working with Maude for the first six months of the coalition government in 2010 up to the point when I retired. There was much to admire: he had energy, vision and a desire to make government better. He was determined, rightly, to secure a better deal from the government’s big suppliers. But there was also much that I found less appealing. Egged on by his special advisers he appeared to regard almost every civil servant he met as a waste of space, every policy that they had ever implemented as a fiasco and every inconvenient fact that a civil servant offered him as proof of their incompetence or disloyalty.

It was perhaps no surprise that his subsequent years in office saw relationships between the civil service and the civil service minister reach what many regard as an all-time low.  Briefings against individual civil servants by name, attacks on the Civil Service Commission, and behaviours which many found beyond any pale whatsoever.

As ever when relationships break down there were no doubt faults on both sides. But the key point is that it could, and should, have been different. What I recall most from my time in government is that those ministers who had the greatest impact tended to have the best relationships with their civil servants. They harnessed their civil servants’ knowledge and experience to their own objectives. They made clear their expectations of their civil servants but also listened to their advice. They took decisions and expected them to be implemented but were also alive to the risks and challenges of implementation. 

Like obsessing over the weather, bashing the civil service seems almost to be part of our national life. But Maude seems surprised that some civil servants are not taking their beating quietly. “Boy, are they fighting back”, The Times reports him as having told his audience at the Speaker’s lecture in Parliament.

If that is true, it is perhaps not before time. Like all institutions the civil service needs to go on developing and improving. It needs to hold its hands up when things go wrong and be more open to learning from both the private and third sectors. But a whipping boy it should not be. This country continues to benefit enormously from a civil service which is honest, almost totally free of patronage and which comprises not only some amazingly hard-working and able people in the corridors of power but also the tens of thousands of their colleagues who deliver difficult and challenging services every day in our courts, tax offices, jobcentres and the like.

We need ministers, and former ministers, to realise that blaming their civil servants for their own failures is not only unedifying but counter-productive. Just suppose that Francis Maude had instead told his audience: “I got some things wrong while I was a minister, so did my civil servants. Here’s how I think we both could have done better.” Not so headline-grabbing perhaps, but vastly more productive. 


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