Liberal Democrat peer Tim Razzall has accused the civil service of prioritising policy over delivery, and said that Brexit will make it even harder to achieve Whitehall reforms.
Lord Razzall, Lib Dem party spokesperson for the civil service and public sector, agreed with comments made last week by Francis Maude, accusing Whitehall of failing to centralise key functions and going backwards on civil service reform.
Speaking to Civil Service World, Razzall said he was inclined to agree with Maude, after the former Cabinet Office minister last week claimed the civil service has a “bias to inertia” and “suffers from institutional complacency”.
Razzall highlighted that the welfare reform programme Universal Credit was failing because “delivery came second to what was a perfectly admirable policy”.
The party today called on the government to pause the rollout of Universal Credit, a flagship policy of the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat 2010 coalition government which is intended to wrap six existing benefits into a single monthly payment. The scheme is due to expand to 50 new areas this autumn, but Razzall told CSW it was a classic example of a policy proposal that became a “potential disaster” when it was rolled out due to failures with transaction functions.
Mirroring comments made by Maude, who instigated a civil service reform programme while he was Cabinet Office minister between 2010 and 2015, Razzall said: “The overarching issue is the way the civil service is run.
“The people who rise to the top, permanent secretaries, are usually policy people, policy advisors – whereas many of the problems facing the civil service are of a transactional, functional nature.”
He added that Brexit, “a policy-heavy issue”, was unlikely to make it any easier to achieve reforms and cultural change across departments.
But Razzall also said, when it comes to Brexit, he sympathised with the civil service, which must generate policies “without clear direction from government” in order to “satisfy conflicting, warring elements within the Conservative government”.
“Whatever criticism we might all make as to the culture of the civil service, it seems to me they’re in an impossible position,” he said, calling on the government to set out a clearer vision for Brexit.
Razzall's comments come after former civil service head Lord Bob Kerslake said civil servants will struggle to develop coherent policies without clearer political priorities, while Sir Simon Fraser, Foreign Office permanent secretary until 2015, accusing the government of having “no clear position” in negotiations.
The peer also said the Liberal Democrats are worried that the government’s “over-concentration of resources on Brexit” is leading to a policy vacuum, with areas such as education, the NHS, energy and transport falling by the wayside.
“I suspect [this vacuum] is mirrored within the top echelons of the civil service,” he said, adding that while capacity is being created within Whitehall for delivering Brexit, he fears that this may be “at the expense of other areas”.
On pay, Razzall said it was “outrageous” that 1% limit to annual increases still applies to most public sector workers, and called for a proper end to the “artificially, centrally imposed cap”.
“We are exploiting poorly paid public servants,” he said. “It’s also particularly unfortunate the way it’s now happening, that one set of public servants is being played off against another. Why is a prison officer getting a higher increase than a nurse?”
The Lib Dem peer was on the board of Govern Up, a cross-party research project that aimed to develop ideas for how to improve the performance of the civil service. It was set up in 2014, when all three main political parties had recent experience of being in government.
Razzall confirmed that Govern Up is due to resume meetings in the coming months.