The resignation of Dominic Raab after an inquiry found he had threatened and intimidated officials seems at first sight to be good news for the civil service. Unlike past experiences, a minister has faced consequences for unacceptable behaviour.
And, indeed, it is good news for the individuals who came forward to complain about Raab – their accounts were validated by investigator Adam Tolley KC, even if not all complaints were upheld. Tolley wrote in particular that complainants from the Ministry of Justice, who were the first to raise concerns formally, “deserve credit for their courage in coming forward”.
“Having interviewed almost all of the individuals closely involved, I find that they are sincere and committed civil servants, with no ulterior agenda,” he said.
Yet several factors diminish this good news. Most fundamentally was the prime minister’s prevarication which allowed – whether deliberately or not – Raab to set a narrative rolling in which he is the victim, a martyr to the civil service blob.
That narrative continued to develop, aided by media outlets happy to give Raab space to extend and elaborate on the accusations made in his resignation letter, and an opportunistic article from Lord Maude in which he used the occasion to put forth his own ideas about civil service reform. This time, they include a desire to develop a culture of “robust challenge” across the civil service and give ministers more power to hire officials.
"The story has shifted. It is the classic abuser’s tactic of DARVO: deny, attack, reverse victim and offender"
So, over the weekend, the story shifted from one about bullying and mistreatment of individuals to one about the shortcomings of civil servants and the civil service itself. It is the classic abuser’s tactic of DARVO: deny, attack, reverse victim and offender.
It’s important to challenge this shift. Raab’s behaviour as a minister was not caused by failings among his staff. Such failings may or may not have occurred – we would never argue that the civil service is perfect, let alone every civil servant. But intimidating and threatening is neither an acceptable response to poor performance, nor even an effective one.
Ministers may have legitimate frustrations with the system – as Maude suggests – or even with individuals. The answer is not to abuse their power by threatening staff.
Roger Hutton was the senior civil servant who led the Ministry of Defence’s work to implement the findings of the Chilcot review. Having studied Chilcot’s report on the Iraq War, Hutton understands the need for robust challenge in government, and the consequences when it does not emerge. He also understands something about how to create a culture of challenge in government.
In a 2020 blog responding to the Priti Patel bullying row, Hutton, who has now left the civil service, wrote: “Even if a leader or manager feels they’re not getting the support from staff they need, bullying is only likely to make it worse. It’s very difficult for a subordinate to support a bully effectively. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know how to say it, and you fear the volcanic (or passive-aggressive) reaction to any attempt to question a senior’s perspective. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – underperformance reinforced and incentivised by bullying.”
Accountability is not the same as blame, and it would not be productive – though it may be satisfying – for the response to Raab’s resignation to include only personal attacks on him and his qualities as a minister. It is right that there should be a discussion about systemic responses to the circumstances around Raab’s behaviour and the manner of his departure.
"Intimidating and threatening is neither an acceptable response to poor performance, nor even an effective one"
Those discussions should encompass many issues – from the ways in which we can effectively create that culture of challenge in government, to how we can improve the delivery of ministerial priorities, and strengthen protections for officials from unacceptable ministerial behaviour in the future.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm recognised the need for a systemic response in a memo sent to civil servants hours after Raab’s departure, in which they said they would “learn from this how to better handle such matters in future” and “reflect” on what Tolley’s report should mean for the civil service.
Around the same time, the FDA union published a statement calling for an independent inquiry into ministerial bulling – another much-needed conversation which would, as well as protecting individuals, help to improve that culture of challenge in government by giving officials a sense of safety to speak up.
Yet in the days since Raab’s resignation, the conversation has not focused on these issues. Instead, the usual round of anti-civil service arguments has been made, and those arguing for sensible and important reforms have been forced to spend their time refuting baseless conspiracies about activists or tired Yes, Minister cliches. By shifting the attention – and blame – onto the civil service itself, Raab and his allies are not only obscuring these important discussions but hampering the prospects of meaningful change and reform.