An open debate, with one side gagged

One man’s honest discussion is another’s backstreet mugging

By Matt.Ross

13 Jun 2013

When civil service commissioner Sir David Normington announced a set of tweaks to the process for appointing permanent secretaries at the end of last year, it seemed that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude was ready to pause his campaign to give secretaries of state the right to choose their preferred candidate from a shortlist – a move that would inch us towards a civil service based on political appointment, rather than purely on merit. Maude said at the time that Normington’s tweaks were “capable of significantly increasing ministerial involvement” in perm sec appointments, and that he’d “wait to see how they are applied in practice” before deciding whether to proceed.

Last week, however, Maude gave a speech in which he revived his campaign (see Opinion; and news); and as evidence of the need for tighter civil service accountability to ministers, he cited – again – a list of weaknesses he’s identified in Whitehall’s skills, processes and working methods. Asked by CSW whether “giving civil servants such a harsh public bashing all the time is going to deepen the rift between civil servants and ministers”, he argued that there’s a need to “be honest” when “things are not working well enough”. To bring people together and “build trust and confidence”, he said, what’s required is an “honest, very open discussion.”

Unfortunately, there can never be an “honest, very open discussion” between ministers and civil servants. As every official learns from the minute they enter public service, they may not challenge ministers or government policies before the public’s gaze – and, though frustrations with the Cabinet Office did recently emerge in Sue Cameron’s Telegraph column, in general this rule still holds. Meanwhile, however, politicians and their special advisers feel free to criticise the civil service publicly – and individual civil servants from behind the cloak of anonymity.

In the very week of Maude’s speech, we saw a particularly nasty example of this imbalance: departing culture department perm sec Jonathan Stephens was attacked in the Times by a “government source” who said that culture secretary Maria Miller does “not rate him” and that the “Olympics were run well despite [him], not because of him.” Although there have been calls for Miller to disavow the comments – including from former Olympics minister Tessa Jowell (see news) – DCMS has refused to comment. Yet this snide attack appears to disregard not just politicians’ duty to respect their staff, but the simple facts: the management of the Olympics, masterminded by Stephens’ department under his watch, stands as a case study in good strategic and financial planning, project management, community engagement and service delivery – some of the key themes trumpeted in the government’s plans for civil service reform.

This doesn’t look like an “honest, very open discussion” about civil service capabilities. After all, most observers agree that those who oversee failed projects should be held more closely to account – but when an official who helped make a huge success of the biggest and most complex public project in years is publicly hung out to dry by unnamed government sources, it appears that success does not attract rewards to balance the censures threatened for those who get it wrong. In this particular case, what we have is not a debate between equals, but a hatchet job wreaked by a masked assailant on an official barred from publicly defending himself.

Against a background of congenial relations at the top of government – and more defensible behaviour by some of those operating in Whitehall – a debate on civil service reform might well produce sensible conclusions. And if the Cabinet Office minister had given Normington’s reforms a fair crack of the whip before reviving a plan supposedly paused to await further evidence, then civil servants might believe that Maude really wants an open discussion designed to identify the best way forward. As things stand, however, it looks rather if the government has already decided to strengthen politicians’ power over civil servants – and that at least some ministers think the best way to win people over to their point of view is by trashing the reputation of their own staff.

Matt Ross, Editor.

See also: 

News: Maude and Hodge call for more political control over perm sec appointments

Opinion: The FDA’s Dave Penman on why Maude should lay off the appointments process

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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