There is an insidious approach being taken by this government with regard to the public servants who serve it. It starts with-off-the-record briefings, normally followed by selectively placed media stories over a weekend and then once the ground has been prepared, a restructuring/resignation/ sacking is announced. Sir Mark Sedwill sought to brush off this “sniping” as not as bad as the real thing. Sir Bernard Jenkin has been critical of it and described it as “counterproductive”.
In reality it’s toxic. It damages individuals who are not able to answer back, it undermines effective government and it should not be tolerated. The difficulty is the ship of state is an odd one because it tends to leak from the top.
I had hoped we had seen the end of this behaviour which we saw around the handling of Brexit. The reality however seems to be – when the politics gets tough, find a public servant to attack, blame or carry the can.
I recognise the world is tough at the moment and not as any of us would want it to be. We are often faced with a range of choices, all of which appear sub optimal and unpalatable to varying degrees. But that is the nature of government and difficult decisions are a privilege of office. Governments are ultimately there to deal with the most difficult and intractable problems societies face.
I fear for the civil service and effective government if things do not change. Michael Gove in a recent speech talked about the civil service, its duty to speak truth to power and at the same time be less “risk averse” and data driven in its approach. All good stuff. But when you are a public servant working for an organisation being briefed against by the politicians you serve, all of that turns to ashes.
We have seen it with Public Health England, we have seen it with the Government Communication Service, we have seen it with individual civil servants and the debacle in education, organisations and staff with their reputations being trashed in the pursuit of positive political headlines or to deflect the spotlight from ministers where responsibilities ultimately lie.
This is not to say that organisations and public servants get everything right. All organisations can improve. With the benefit of hindsight different decisions could always have been made. Hanging organisations and individuals out to dry, however, has a chilling effect that will long outlast the lust for tomorrow’s media headlines. Knowing your minister will sell you down the river if it saves their political skin and takes the heat off them for a while does not make for good government.
The government needs to re-establish trust with those who serve it. The government has said it wants to reform the civil service but has not articulated fully what it means by that. If you want to drive positive change this is not how you do it.
Leadership is about taking responsibility and setting out a clear path. In government it is about taking responsibility for what are often difficult, but ultimately are political decisions. Too often at the moment it feels the old adage “advisors advise, ministers decide” has to be amended to include “and civil servants take the blame”.
Garry Graham is deputy general secretary of the Prospect union