'There is something wrong with the way Whitehall does policy': Ex-DfE perm sec blasts ‘reality disconnect’

Jonathan Slater says policymakers should have frontline delivery experience and be rewarded for results on the ground
Photo: Baldo Sciacca for CSW

By Jim Dunton

08 Mar 2022

Former Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater has issued a stinging criticism of the civil service’s detachment from the public it exists to serve, and has warned that the situation does not seem to have improved for more than 50 years.

Slater, now a visiting professor at King’s College London, said learning the reality of frontline delivery should be a requirement for policymakers early in their careers, and promotion should be dependent upon it.

He said he was not talking about short-term secondments to investment banks, but multiple years managing job centres, courts, prisons, local authority departments or similarly large private-sector operations. Slater said that as the civil service had taken on responsibility for more and more public services from local government, there were many more opportunities for running services without even having to leave the civil service.

Other recommendations in his new paper, Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine, include challenging the pervading culture of remoteness, “studied neutrality” and “emotional detachment” in civil-service leadership and rewarding officials for what they actually achieve on the ground.

He said the civil service’s longstanding churn problem was also a function of a failure to prize delivering on-the-ground results above officials’ “elegant ‘handling’ of tricky issues for ministers”.

Slater was sacked by prime minister Boris Johnson following summer 2020’s exams algorithm debacle, in a move widely seen as an attempt to save the political skin of then-education secretary Gavin Williamson.

The former perm sec spent more than a decade working in local government before joining the Cabinet Office in 2001. He said that, in the two decades since, he had been struck by the extent to which public engagement was a core part of local-government policymaking but seen as less important in central government.

Slater’s paper says the 1968 Fulton report on the civil service identified a lack of contact between officials and the wider community as a serious problem, but the link between policymakers and the public did not seem to have improved in the intervening 54 years.

He predicted that the inability of government – including his own former department – to “put ourselves in the public's shoes” was likely to loom large in the pending public inquiry into the nation’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One example given by Slater was a “huge disconnect” between Whitehall conversations about whether vulnerable pupils should go to school during lockdown and the on-the-ground reality of whether it would actually happen.

Speaking to CSW in 2020, the former official said he had personally recommended to the prime minister that schools remain open to “those children with an education, health and care plan that needed it because of the risk to their safety".

In today's policy paper, Slater wrote: “Looking back on a career of policymaking and delivery, in both local and central government, I have been inspired by some people, depressed by others, but largely impressed by public servants working hard to serve the public.

“But ever since moving from local to central, I have felt there is something wrong with the way that Whitehall does policy.

“Working for an inspiring, capable minister in a competent government clearly makes for better policy than working for an egotistical, incapable minister in an incompetent one.

“But whoever the minister, I have found myself asking, over and over again: why is the civil service policy machine so often divorced from the realities of delivery and the experiences of those who are supposed to benefit from it, and what can be done to fix it?”

Slater said he had worked with many civil servants and ministers over the years who were “desperate for change”. He said it was time to bring the world of policymaking “blinking into the light” and put the needs of the public front and centre.

The ex-perm sec’s recommendations for change also include increasing the level of transparency and accountability policymakers are exposed to, including making civil servants account to parliamentary select committees for the options appraisals they prepare for their ministers.

His full report can be read here

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