War on Whitehall 'changed absolutely nothing', former top civil servant says

Changes made in 2020 "shouldn’t be mistaken for a programme of civil service reform", Ciaran Martin writes
Former NCSC head Ciaran Martin. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

The “war on Whitehall” spearheaded by Dominic Cummings last year changed “absolutely nothing” other than a few personnel changes, a former high-ranking civil servant has claimed.

Ciaran Martin, who until last year was head of the National Cyber Security Centre, said that despite reports of plans for a major overhaul of the civil service, “nothing was done in 2020 that changed the way the civil service actually works”.

But reflecting on the last year’s changes on Twitter, Martin wrote: “It’s worth asking: what has this latest attempt, accompanied as it has been by ferocious (if mostly anonymously briefed) rhetoric, actually involved?

“The answer is, by historical standards, virtually nothing at all.”

He agreed with several other commentators that the reappointment of Treasury permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar for a second five-year term, announced last week, appears to signal that the so-called war on Whitehall “does genuinely seem to be over”.

Scholar’s reappointment followed an unprecedented year of perm sec departures, accompanied by hostile briefings against both individuals and the civil service at large.

Scholar is the only one of those on a “hit list” of perm secs that No.10 reportedly wanted to replace last year who has remained in government. The remaining two, Home Office chief Sir Philip Rutnam and Foreign Office perm sec Sir Simon McDonald, left last year.

Martin said the removal of a handful of top officials was one of “two discernible strands of activity” intended to reform the civil service last year.

The other, moving the No.10 Policy Unit and Cummings’s office into the Cabinet Office, Martin said “has quite literally amounted to rearranging some of the furniture”.

He said that while some officials have been forced out of their jobs, citing former cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill as a notable example, it has not fundamentally changed the way the civil service is led. Sedwill has said he always planned to leave his role before his five-year term was up, but others, such as former Department for Education secretary Jonathan Slater, have been pushed out.

Martin noted that of those perms secs who have left, “the replacements have been career insiders, cut from the same cloth. Sometimes they’ve been a good bit younger, but not always”.

"Absolutely nothing has changed in the civil service, apart from the identities of a few very senior office holders.," he said.

He said the changes that had materialised were not in line with the “ferocious” rhetoric being briefed out, often anonymously, in the press that No.10 would impose major reforms on the civil service.

Much of the drive for reform was understood to come from Boris Johnson’s former top aide Cummings, who wanted an overhaul of civil service hiring and firing rules. The former spad was highly critical of government HR practices, and said that the civil service lacked diversity of thought, that it discouraged innovation and that it lacked particular skills.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has also pledged reform, which he said in last year’s Ditchley speech was necessary to restore public trust, end the “whirligig” of transfers and bolster necessary skills.

Martin called the Ditchley lecture “the only attempt I’m aware of to put the current government’s thinking on the civil service into a coherent basis for action”, but said the ideas Gove shared at that time were “nothing new”.

“Moreover, there is no evidence of a programme of work to implement even these stale ideas, or of a team working on them. This is in marked contrast to the very systematic implementation of previous reforms,” he said, nodding to changes that happened under former Cabinet Office minister Lord Francis Maude.

“The government has been entirely within its rights to do what it’s done. It’s just that what it’s done shouldn’t be mistaken for a programme of civil service reform. Parliament and the public are entitled to ask what the point of it all was amidst the challenges of 2020,” he said.

He added: “Of course, this could change. The government still has four years to run. And there are good reasons, post-Covid, to have a hard look at reshaping the state. 

“But this needs a serious programme of work and sustained political and official effort over time.”

Martin became the first chief executive of the NCSC when it was established in 2016, after three years as head of cyber security at GCHQ. He left the NCSC last year and was succeeded by former Northern Ireland Office director general Lindy Cameron.

Now a professor of practice at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, Martin’s previous roles include director of constitution at the Cabinet Office, as well as several other jobs in the department, the Treasury and the National Audit Office.

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