Cometh the hour, cometh the expert: Is Bingham right about civil servants' 'groupthink and aversion to risk'?

The former Vaccine Task Force chief makes a powerful case for reform, but the key thing is to have the right skills for the right job
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Andrew Hudson

17 Dec 2021

Civil service reform returned to the headlines when Dame Kate Bingham, ex-chair of the UK Vaccine Task Force, attracted attention with her call for more people with a scientific background to be brought into the senior ranks of government. She also shared her frustration at the “groupthink and massive aversion to risk” among civil servants. So, is she right? And if so, since these are not new points, why has change proved so hard?

Her comments are part of a thoughtful set of reflections on her experience of government, delivered in the Romanes Lecture in Oxford on 23 November, and covered in CSW. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

She makes a powerful case for having more scientists, and particularly for improving understanding of how business works. Her recommendations are similar to previous analyses dating back at least to the Fulton Report in the 1960s. They also go with the grain of the recent Declaration on Government Reform from June this year, so much so that cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Simon Case wrote to The Times saying that he would be bringing in “more Dame Kates”.

My own view of this is that the key thing is to have the right skills for the right job. I agree with Bingham that there should be more scientists in the senior ranks of the civil service, but that should be part of diversifying the skills base – behavioural scientists and people who aren’t London-centric might be other priorities. Having more people with undergraduate degrees in physics rather than history (full disclosure, that’s me) won’t do a great deal to impart the scientific method if both have spent 20 years in Whitehall on their way up the ladder. Bingham’s other proposals about giving staff serious experience of life in business will make more difference there.

It’s also right that more people should be brought in from outside government, but again with the right people for the right jobs. Take some examples from transport. If government wants some blue-sky thinking to reimagine urban transport in 2040, then a broadly-based team, including some of the “weirdos and misfits” Dominic Cummings once called for, could be just right. To finish Crossrail, and make sure the first trains run on time, you need someone with experience of running a railway. For HS2, you need all sorts of skills, but the person pulling it all together at the centre for ministers needs to understand how to manage a wide range of stakeholders, how to get successive bits of legislation through parliament, how to see even something as big as HS2 in the context of the government’s wider programme – traditional Whitehall skills.

I recognise Bingham’s other point about “massive aversion to risk”, but would again inject a dose of proportionality. On smaller matters, the civil service may be too risk-averse and hence process-driven, partly because of what she calls “the present obsession with PR and political presentation”, though that doesn’t tend to start with officials. But where huge sums of public money are concerned, the processes are there for a reason, and the criticism from the Public Accounts Committee of NHS Test and Trace – allocated “eye watering sums of taxpayers’ money” but failing to deliver its ambitions – suggests that a bit more planning rather than less might have been useful. It also shows that building relationships with others in the delivery chain – local authorities in this case – is vital. What the civil service, and indeed the whole government machine, need to get better at is for robust processes not to mean inevitable delay.

I can’t resist the pun that Bingham has given a shot in the arm to the debate about civil service reform. Perhaps most importantly, her analysis points up the question of why reforms of the civil service have proved hard to land. That’s a topic for a future column. 

Andrew Hudson is a former director general of public services at the Treasury. He now chairs the Centre for Homelessness Impact

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