Daniel Finkelstein wrote a great piece in The Times recently on “the blob” as the generic term for, among others, the civil service.
One Mr Gove has a lot to answer for, as it was he who introduced the phrase in a UK context to describe what he considered to be the institutional educational interests opposed to his reforms. As Finkelstein points out, ”the blob” has become the excuse for any failing in government policy. It’s also become the lazy trope of client journalists and, of late, it would appear that the FDA has also become synonymous with it. We stand accused of targeting ministers and organising civil servants who wish to undermine the settled will of government.
The “ministers versus the blob” story line is being played out repeatedly, mainly because it suits the interests of those who need an excuse, those who want to divert attention and those whose record is not what they’d hoped for. It’s been repeated so often it now becomes an accepted fact – I’m often asked by respectable journalists about how far spread it is, not whether it actually exists.
For those who’ve abjectly failed to deliver any meaningful change, played to a populist tune for their own political ambitions and found themselves with the hand on the tiller, unable and sometimes unfit to govern in the national interest, it can be quite uncomfortable.
Their policies and integrity have been found wanting because that’s the harsh reality of governing. You can only hide for so long. At some point, what you do, don’t do, or try to hide comes back to bite you in the ass.
There is no agenda, no blob versus elected ministers, no hit list, and no campaign to undermine a democratically elected government. There is only the reality of government and the quality of ministers and policies. Every government finds that out eventually, it's just the last few have found it out a lot quicker for obvious reasons.
That’s not to say that there isn’t repair work to be done. No civil servant I’ve met over the last few years has felt anything other than underappreciated by government, their employer. We’ve seen civil servants as a group constantly attacked and their leadership openly undermined. At our conference in May I pointed out the obvious contradiction in civil servants being told they are lazy, woke, inefficient, remainer, activist snowflakes, but also somehow at the same time Machiavellian geniuses, able to unseat ministers and undermine the settled will of government.
"No civil servant I’ve met over the last few years has felt anything other than underappreciated by government, their employer"
Civil servants have not felt valued for any number of reasons and the initial approach on pay for this year underlined that. Despite assurances of equal treatment, the civil service was used as a pawn to send a message elsewhere in the public sector. Whatever drove that agenda, the decision to reverse it and put a broader package around pay and job protection together, is one that has the opportunity to act as a reset.
Governments are not known for changing their minds, so the decision to introduce for delegated grades an additional £1,500 non-consolidated payment to assist with cost of living pressures, is not one that will have been taken easily. Additional assurances on avoiding compulsory redundancies and no further pre-election changes to the compensation scheme suggest a leadership of the civil service – both at ministerial and official level – that is trying hard to find that reset button. Just as the original decision to single out the civil service for inequitable treatment was rightly condemned, so the decision to not only reverse, but enhance the offer to civil servants should be welcomed and recognised as a significant achievement.
There is more to do, not least for the senior civil service which is not covered by this pay decision. How the government responds to the Senior Salaries Review Body recommendations will be the litmus test for that. Civil service pay arrangements urgently need reform and the cost of living crisis has only brought that in to sharper relief.
But maybe the biggest take away is that a government that leads its civil servants, rather than constantly undermining them, is inevitably going to be more successful one.
Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union