Editorial: Let’s disentangle this complex debate

The ‘bureaucrat bashers’ are only making things worse

By Matt.Ross

30 Jan 2013

Recent weeks have seen a wide-ranging set of attacks on civil servants; but while the media outlets that convey these criticisms enjoy knitting every complaint together into a neat depiction of the civil service as bloated, obstructive and inept, there are actually three sets of criticisms here, made by intersecting groups with distinct objectives.

Some ministers portray Whitehall as wasteful, with the aim of winning support for cuts to salaries, pensions, jobs and, now, terms & conditions. Another group of politicians, railing against the slow pace of delivery and the constraints presented to them by officials, believe that their policies would work out fine if only civil servants could be forced to obey them. And a third group – including many civil servants as well as politicians – complain that Whitehall lacks the skills and capabilities to deliver policies effectively. Unfortunately, the assaults mounted by the first two cohorts – the first rooted in hard political calculations, the second in frustration and a misunderstanding of the civil service’s role – are undermining the efforts of the third group.

Sensible leaders know that, to reform and improve delivery skills, they must first engage the workforce with the task. In 2006 Tory HQ recognised this, and the party’s Public Services Improvement Policy Group criticised Labour ministers for attacking public servants: “A private corporation which publicly shamed its employees in the way that government has done in recent years would not long survive,” it said. Yet now Tories launch indiscriminate broadsides that risk creating a mood of sullen recalcitrance.

As scrutiny of the West Coast Mainline debacle reveals (see news feature), parts of the civil service do urgently need to improve in areas such as management and procurement. But it’s clear that the cuts have seriously weakened the DfT’s abilities here – not only because a hasty reorganisation weakened continuity of leadership and sucked away essential skills, but also because the Cabinet Office’ spending controls ruled out the high professional salaries or external advice that might have filled those gaps.

Here, the spending controls have proved an overly blunt instrument (see news article). Essential at first to force officials to question every budget line, they are nonetheless a constraint on the civil service’s ability to do its job. Ultimately, the best tools to catalyse deeper civil service reform are the efforts of departmental managers, staff engagement, and the empowerment of top leaders – none of which can be mandated by central diktat. There is substantial support for reform inside Whitehall, and most changes – those designed to cut spending as well as to build capabilities – would be far easier to implement if civil servants were engaged rather than bludgeoned.

That leaves the third debate – and the constitutional issues around civil service accountability should be discussed quite separately, for there’s no reason to think that giving ministers more power in Whitehall would help cut civil service costs or improve capabilities. This, ultimately, would be a debate about which group is more trusted: civil servants, or politicians. And in CSW’s more cynical moments, the thought occurs that maybe that fact explains why some of those who want to tighten accountability seem so keen to conflate these three distinct issues in the first place.

Matt Ross, editor. matt.ross@dods.co.uk

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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