Civil service ‘can’t deal with poor performance’, says former No.10 Policy Unit boss

Munira Mirza claims sideways-move culture is “very demoralising” for officials and needs to be fixed
Munira Mirza speaks at the IfG conference. Photo: IfG/YouTube

By Jim Dunton

19 Jan 2023

One of Boris Johnson’s erstwhile top aides – who was director of the No.10 Policy Unit – has accused the civil service of being unwilling to deal with poor performance among senior officials.

Munira Mirza led the No.10 Policy Unit from July 2019 to February last year. She also played a key role in writing the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto, which turned the hung parliament Johnson inherited from Theresa May into an 80-seat majority for the then-PM.

Speaking at the Institute for Government’s annual conference this week, Mirza told a panel session on Whitehall reform that she believed the civil service had an aversion to tackling poor performance head-on and that the situation had a negative impact on morale among competent staff.

“I’ve spoken to lots of civil servants who’ve all complained that there is poor performance that isn’t dealt with properly,” she said.

“It’s very demoralising, and it gives them the sense that people just get moved sideways. They get given a good reference. Then they pop up in another department, leading some other incredibly important project.”

Mirza acknowledged that she had “no scientific data” on the performance-management failings she believed were a major problem in departments. However, she said the way such problems had been related to her indicated they were widespread.

“The fact that so many people will say it sotto voce means that is a general problem,” she said.

Mirza said the civil service’s will to fix the issue would be “quite an important signal”.

“In most companies, there is a recognition that if your team is underperforming somewhere, you should do something about it,” she said.

Mirza said that in the civil service, there was a sense that less direct action was taken.

“I think it perhaps gets hidden or people or people move around,” she said.

Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Antonia Romeo was a panellist in the same session and was asked for her view on Mirza’s performance-related claims.

Romeo said it was the job of perm secs to build high-performing departments that delivered for ministers.

“Obviously, perm secs have particular responsibility to parliament for stewardship of public finances and resourcing,” she said.

“Ensuring that we have the best possible people and that they’re working in the most effective way – and therefore the role that performance management plays in that – is, I think, absolutely essential.

“So the will, I think, is definitely there. It’s an area where we spend a lot of time talking about things. We spend a lot of time at the top of the civil service talking about talent management. And that should happen throughout the civil service.

“But there’s obviously a lot more that can and should be done.”

Mirza quit government after Boris Johnson wrongly accused Labour Party leader Keir Starmer of failing to prosecute celebrity sex-offender Jimmy Savile during his time as director of public prosecutions.

She is now chief executive of the Civic Future organisation.

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