Editorial: Farewell from Matt Ross

Since 2008, the civil service has seen huge change. Now it’s time for me to follow its lead

ONS/Open Government Licence 3.0

By Matt Ross

17 Dec 2014

The civil service, we are told, moves at a glacial pace. Politicians and journalists portray businesses and charities as nimbler and more adaptable than creaky old Whitehall, depicting civil service leaders as obstructive mandarins fighting endlessly to defend the status quo. And to be fair, for decades the civil service did evolve more slowly than the outside world: as Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell tells CSW in our December issue, it became “very set in its ways”. Yet since I first entered this world to edit CSW (then Whitehall & Westminster World) in July 2008, the civil service has undergone more change than almost every other sector of the economy. Most stereotypes contain a kernel of truth – but these days, that picture of a static, archaic civil service is itself so outdated that it conceals more than it reveals.

Back then, the digital and efficiency agendas were little more than glints in Gordon Brown’s eye; now they’re the fixed points around which other policy and operational decisions are made. Then, most central functions and civil service professions had short arms and weak muscles; now the Efficiency & Reform Group’s powers reach across Whitehall, whilst functional leaders wield ever-growing influence over staff development, resource allocation and strategic decision-making. Tightening budgets have squeezed incomes and catalysed wholesale reform across Whitehall, hastening outsourcing and churn in senior posts. And the civil service has lost nearly 20% of its staff, along with 285 non-departmental public bodies. 

In short, today’s civil service is a very different creature to 2008’s: thinner and grumpier, but also more muscular, open-minded and well-coordinated. And whilst officials deserve much credit for creating this change, it wouldn’t have come about without Francis Maude: the first Cabinet Office minister in decades to demonstrate a genuine interest in civil service reform, and the longest-serving Paymaster-General since Lord Wolverton left the job in 1885.

Known for his grasp of detail and his commitment to the role, Maude has fostered unprecedented and fundamentally positive reforms. But nobody gets everything right. Expanding ministers’ powers – notably through changes to perm sec appointments, and the external commissioning of policy research – may ultimately weaken continuity, institutional memory, scrutiny of policy ideas, and the quality of evidence. More seriously, Maude has either been complicit in, or unable to halt, a flow of comments that have weakened civil servants’ support for his own reforms. 

Perhaps his early criticisms of Whitehall – using tools such as Sir Philip Green’s risible Powerpoint presentation – were required to overcome its remarkable institutional inertia. But once he’d built momentum, the minister should have robustly defended officials against the public attacks and unattributable briefings emanating from fellow ministers and special advisers. Many civil servants understood the need for real-terms pay cuts, widespread job losses, bigger pension contributions, smaller redundancy payments, more public scrutiny and heavier workloads. But people who’ve gone through such travails need their efforts recognised: the perception that ministers don’t respect their own workforce has done more to damage morale – and thus delivery – than any cut or reform. As I wrote in June 2010 of the coalition’s austerity policies: “People will put up with a huge amount of pain if they can see that everybody is suffering; but they’ll balk at a pinprick if they feel it unjust.” 

A fortnight later, I wrote that “taking this much money out of the economy, this quickly, risks pushing us straight back into recession as public jobs and procurement nose-dive.” We then experienced that second recession, followed by a form of growth that seems unable to replenish the Treasury’s coffers. Yet austerity is set to continue: unless the next government uses applause rather than attacks to pull the civil service in the right direction, it will struggle to deliver public services and reforms alongside its budget cuts.

For me, it’s been an enormous privilege to edit CSW as the civil service simultaneously transforms itself, squeezes spending, serves a coalition, and delivers an ambitious set of policies. Civil servants’ professionalism, ability, and commitment to public service have all been amply on show, and I’ve encountered enormous talent, application and ambition among staff at all levels.

Meanwhile, we at CSW have undertaken a miniature version of the civil service’s reforms, building digital channels whilst working to maintain quality, cut waste, and retain our focus on meeting the needs of service users. Since July 2008 I’ve edited 134 magazines, launched two websites, changed the publication’s name, and relaunched it as a monthly magazine – and it has been truly wonderful. But as civil servants will know, nobody should stay in a job for too long: your expertise may only deepen, but the amount of positive change you can achieve eventually dwindles. So this is my last issue of CSW. The new editor is Jess Bowie: a very talented journalist with experience on CSW and, crucially, a deep understanding of – and empathy for – Britain’s public servants. 

As I leave, I’m glad to know that CSW is in safe hands. And I’m gladder still that – given the talent, ethos and commitment of our civil service – that’s also true of our country. In these turbulent and testing times, there’s no administration better able to serve its citizens and its democracy than the UK Civil Service.

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