The former Cabinet Office minister and architect of the 2012 civil service reform plan has called for “much more routine” use of ministerial directions.
Francis Maude told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the civil service was “no place for snowflakes” who would not be resilient enough to speak truth to power.
His call for greater use of the directions – which enables senior civil servants to air their concerns about a policy – echoed that of National Audit Office head Amyas Morse, who was called before the same committee last month.
During a committee hearing yesterday on civil service capability, Lord Maude also repeated his criticism of Whitehall’s resistance to reform and his concerns about civil servants’ lack of basic training.
Accounting officers seek a ministerial direction when they are worried a policy is somehow inappropriate or not value for money. It forces ministers to publicly defend their proposals and issue formal instructions for the department to proceed, with the minister taking on responsibility for that decision.
Maude said the tool was an important “safety valve”, and called on PACAC – which is currently conducting an inquiry into civil service effectiveness that focuses on the relationship between ministers and officials – to find a way to make it a “much more routine part of the system”, especially in the early stages of a new parliament.
He said: “One of the sadnesses for me is that it’s become a kind of nuclear, relationship-destroying thing – or it’s become seen as that. It only ever gets used towards the end of a government. I would like that to be much more routine.
“A confident minister, confident that what he or she is doing is right, should be perfectly willing to defend that publicly.”
Asked whether there was a danger that seeking ministerial directions could be interpreted as a resistance to executing policy decisions, Maude said civil servants needed to be “robust enough” to handle it.
“We should be putting in place senior civil servants who are strong enough characters and robust and resilient enough to do that,” he said. “This is not the place for snowflakes. These people need to be intellectually robust, and to feel that they have backing from the civil service hierarchy in speaking truth unto power.”
According to the Institute for Government there have been 60 ministerial directions since 1990 – 10 of them since 2010, including on the proposed Garden Bridge in London, the government grant for Kids Company and the increase in special adviser’s severance pay.
Morse, the NAO’s comptroller and auditor general, has also told PACAC that ministerial directions are “quite rare, and quite often on a technicality”, and he called for a strengthening of the system.
Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the Institute for Government, also said he wants to see the tool to be used more frequently in government.
He told Civil Service World: "Ministerial directions are really important for holding ministers to account in how they spend public money. Although they can sometimes show a rift in the relationship between the minister and their permanent secretary, they’re also a sign that the accountability system is working properly.
"Seeing directions as part of that system, rather than a professional failure as some have in the past, would be helpful in prompting more conversations about the way public money is spent."
Elsewhere in yesterday’s hearing, Maude said he became “quite disillusioned with the quality of some civil servants” over the course of his five-year stint as Cabinet Office minister, from 2010 to 2015.
“It’s very easy to sound like you’re generalising, we had some absolutely brilliant civil servants – some of the best people I’ve known working with us and for us doing amazing stuff,” he said.
“But I think that the sort of lower level basic skills…touch typing… speed reading, letter typing – this isn’t done nearly as much as it should be, because training for fast stream was absolutely made secondary to doing the job.”
He talked of the resistance he’d encountered from permanent secretaries to reforming the graduate programme, and to boosting their own training – despite their being “woefully inadequately prepared” to lead government departments.
Asked what he would do if he was attempting civil service reform again, Maude said: “Start it sooner, do it more robustly.”
He added: “This is never a high priority for prime ministers… we had very strong support from David Cameron for what we were doing but it’s never a day-by-day priority from them. And of course, if you’re the minister trying to drive reform and the resistance is coming from the cabinet secretary, head of the civil service, that person is going in to see the prime minister twice a day.”
Maude met with Cameron regularly but it “certainly wasn’t every day”, he said.
In an unusual interjection following a divisive speech by the former minister earlier this year – in which Maude accused senior officials of fighting reforms – the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood criticised Maude’s “wholly inaccurate portrayal”.
Yesterday’s hearing also covered use of special advisers in government. Maude said his special advisers had been useful as “networkers”, who were able to seek out “particularly younger” civil servants that were especially frustrated by Whitehall inertia and keen to see reform.