Francis Maude’s review of Whitehall should lead to cross-party agreement on civil service reform

Leaked proposals for a new settlement for ministers and civil servants are mostly to be welcomed
Photo: Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

By Alex Thomas

19 Oct 2023

Details of Francis Maude’s review of Whitehall are starting to emerge. They show that he has treated his narrow terms of reference with the same reverence that he used to show for the sacred cows and conventions of some parts of government. Good. His thorough look at the way ministers and civil servants work, and at the institutions that help govern us, reflect problems long identified by the Institute.  

Staff churn, dysfunction at the centre, short-termism, a need for more external expertise, the under-emphasis of operational and specialist experience and the importance of corporate capability in the civil service are recurring themes of the last decade of our work at the Institute for Government. A focus on government reform should be welcomed by senior civil servants, current Conservative ministers and their potential Labour successors. This should not be a political football but an essential cross-party project. 

Nobody runs the civil service – and that is a problem 

Lord Maude rightly returns to familiar themes. He identifies the problem that nobody is properly in charge of the civil service. The cabinet secretary, Maude says, must get his way through “drollery, charm and persuasion”. In my evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry last week I made the same point, noting the lack of authority the cabinet secretary has over the permanent secretaries he nominally leads. The head of the civil service must have more direct management power – and also therefore accountability – over the capability of the civil service. We have argued for a new statute, Lord Maude prefers beefing up the Civil Service Commission. Both could work, but something has to change. 

The lack of a strategic centre of government is another welcome theme. The weak and hollow centre of UK administration is the reason we set up the institute’s Commission on the Centre of Government. A better aligned No.10 and Treasury, both working to a crisp, prioritised and collectively agreed programme for government, will be essential for the next government, whatever its political colour, to achieve its objectives. 

Another recommendation to start "360-degree" performance reviews of ministers is a nice idea. The performance and personal development of ministers would undoubtedly improve if all were as professionally diligent as Lord Maude. But the reality of political factionalism across ministerial teams and the temptations of prime ministerial patronage leaves me sceptical. Better perhaps to emphasise crunchy training interventions and encouraging ministers to learn from their peers and other veterans of ministerial office. 

"Starting '360-degree' performance reviews of ministers is a nice idea. But the reality of political factionalism across ministerial teams and the temptations of prime ministerial patronage leaves me sceptical"

Maude recommends a number of big splits 

Other recommendations might be worthwhile but need careful thought. The review returns to Maude’s well-known view that the roles of the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service should be split. The problem here is that for the head of the civil service to get anything done the job needs the authority that comes with the cabinet secretary’s closeness to the prime minister. It may be the right decision to split the roles, and it is certainly the case that the job seems to have become un-doable in recent years, but such a change would need to be accompanied by a major bolstering of the authority of the managerial head of the civil service. 

Another split, and one that has tempted successive prime ministers, is to break up the Treasury. Maude’s version appears to remove its power to allocate money to departments and make spending decisions. That could strengthen the centre of government and the head of the civil service. But its political and administrative cost, alongside a demotion to the prime minister’s most powerful colleague, has dissuaded every prime minister from taking the plunge, apart from a short and unhappy experiment under Harold Wilson. 

There are ways to improve things that don’t involve a costly split, and we will have more to say about that in the Centre Commission report. But at the very least the prime minister needs more economic capability in No.10 to level the playing field with the chancellor, and spending reviews and budgets should be a shared endeavour not a Whitehall power play. 

Maude’s worst idea perhaps ironically reflects his own genuine interest in how government should work. He will argue for ministers to have more influence over the appointment of their most senior officials. This understates just how much say canny ministers already have over official appointments, thanks in part to reforms Maude made when he was previously minister for the cabinet office. It assumes an interest in government capability that is shared by too few ministers and at the same time erodes a safeguard to the civil service’s impartiality. It would be a mistake. 

But we shall see exactly what Lord Maude recommends. If his proposal to strengthen the Civil Service Commission as a guardian of best practice is convincing, then perhaps we should worry less about politicisation. If he proves that a separate head of the civil service can maintain the authority needed to get things done in Whitehall then he will have helped cut a Gordian knot of government administration. 

The Institute’s Centre Commission welcomes Lord Maude’s always-valuable contribution and our own offering will be ready in the New Year.

Alex Thomas is programme director leading the work on the civil service and policymaking at the Institute for Government, where this blog first appeared

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