The year ahead: ‘Even if Cummings succeeds, he will fail to reform the civil service’

In our January issue, CSW asks experts to give their thoughts on the new government’s policy priorities. In this entry, Richard Harries considers if the government’s reforms will overcome the barriers to change in Whitehall

Photo: PA

By Richard Harries

28 Jan 2020

Speculation has been growing about Dominic Cummings’s plans for the civil service. We have been told he will merge departments and impose pay caps, move entire agencies out of London and single-handedly reform defence procurement. Earlier this month the great man himself broke cover to reveal his plans for overhauling No.10. But here is the truth: even if all his plans succeed, Cummings will fail to reform the civil service.

He starts with a significant advantage: a recognition of the need to act now. Most attempts at reform founder because they start too late. Francis Maude’s 30-page plan was launched two years after the coalition government came to power with a headline ambition to reduce the size of the civil service by 23%. The problem with delay is that by the time the reformer is ready to go, secretaries of state are already well into the delivery of departmental programmes and cannot afford to lose the support of officials in the run up to the next election.

Cummings has avoided that trap. Nor will he fail because he has latched on to the wrong issues. Procurement is a problem; we do have too many Whitehall departments; activity is too concentrated in London and the south east; and there has always been a woeful lack of quantitative skills in the senior ranks of the civil service. The ultimate reason he will fail is that he is not addressing the root cause of the malaise.

The core problem lies not with the number and quality of civil servants but with the number and quality of ministers. In the UK there are simply too many: 118 at the last count, compared with fewer than 50 in Germany and around 30 in France. And for every minor parliamentary under-secretary of state in some far-flung Whitehall department there is a battalion of officials – endlessly writing speeches, refining strategies and engaging stakeholders.

The other reason Cummings will fail is as old as the hills. Whatever his views on the permanent civil service, and he has many, it is permanent. It will be here long after he is gone. Reformers come and reformers go but the civil service endures, doing its best to serve the administration of the day.

If all this seems like weary cynicism, that is largely because it is. My own civil service career started in 1989 and over the following 24 years I witnessed many reforms: market testing, citizen’s charters, delivery trajectories, public service agreement targets and endless, endless machinery of government transfers. (My last department, now known as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has previously traded as the DoE, DETR, DTLR, ODPM and DCLG.)

Maude’s grand plan to reduce the size of the civil service made it as far as 19% before the elastic snapped back and the recruitment drive started. Numbers have gone up ever since.

The final word on the matter should go to former cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. When asked in 2015 whether Maude’s reform plan was dead in the water, he replied: “Oh no, it’s not dead! We talk about it all the time.”

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